“Madonna di Loreto”, Caravaggio, 1604-6, Cavalletti Chapel, Church of San’ Augustino, Rome. On a darkened street a rather beautiful woman stands bare foot on a doorstep. She holds a child. An elderly couple are kneeling before her, each holding a stick. Obviously, they are pilgrims and, judging by their clothes, very poor. This painting hangs in a Roman Church, which was the second last stop for the pilgrims making their way to St Peter’s. Such people – the mother, the child, the pilgrims -were a common sight on the streets of Rome. There is two odd things; the size of the child and the woman’s halo. At his age, he should be out playing with other boys on the street. His nakedness references the Nativity as her halo. But now they live in Nazareth and the child is growing (Lk 2:40). The doorstep is that of the house wherein she and St Joseph reared Jesus in Nazareth, now transported to the Italian town of Loreto, miraculously, it was believed, by angels. This is a vision of the Virgin and Child quite unlike any other. But it is to this barefoot man and his wife that Our Lady of Loreto reveals her Son. Their vision echoes the Visitation, when the elderly and pregnant Elizabeth declares, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1: 43)” By the time of Caravaggio, devotion to Our Lady of Loreto was very popular. It was a wealthy Roman couple, who shared this devotion, who had commissioned this painting to hang in their private chapel, but to be seen by ordinary pilgrims as they neared their journey’s end. Although the Cavalletti were pleased with Caravaggio’s work, there were many in Rome who were shocked by it. This Mary is bare footed woman from the surrounding city streets. Usually, artists seated Mary on a throne, as befitted her status as Queen of Heaven, and placed a perfectly proportioned child on her lap. Here Jesus seems to have outgrown his mother’s lap. How can she beholding him so effortlessly? Now in paintings of the Madonna it was common practice to show the patrons kneeling before her. But this couple are far too poor to be the patrons. They are just two humble and elderly peasants who as they finish their pilgrimage, and perhaps their lives, are honoured with a vision of Our Lady and Jesus. Mary bears a Christ child, who has outgrown her lap, to these humble pilgrims with dirty feet. On Thursday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption where in Mary is assumed into heaven, body and soul. Here Mary and Jesus descend from heaven with bodies which are as real as our own. Surely, this painting is about how God’s graces are to be received? It is not the proud and haughty but the lowly whom he will raise up. This is Mary’s Magnificat, played out on a dark and dusty Roman street. This is the pilgrim’s hope.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.