The great red cloth and the column on the left suggest that the Our Lady and Jesus are seated on a make-shift throne. While the child Jesus stares out at us, Our Lady gestures to a Dominican friar. The friar can be identified as St Dominic, not least because there is a star just visible on his forehead. The saint stands with his hands stretched out as if in prayer. This is St Dominic contemplating Our Lady and Jesus. Rosaries hang from his finger tips. Beneath him a group of people kneel with hands outstretched towards him and the rosary beads. Our Lady’s gesture seems to be a command that St Dominic to offer the Rosary to the poor. On the right, another friar looks out at us. He is identified by the wound on his head. It is St Peter of Verona, the first Dominican Martyr. Directing our gaze towards Our Lady and Jesus, this martyr invites us to contemplate the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the Passion by praying the Rosary. In this silent tableau the drama unfolds by the use of hands, which again takes us back to the rosary as a prayer of the hands and heart. One of the most striking things about this painting is that there is no distinction between the heavenly and earthly realms. Although, seated above ground level, Our Lady, Jesus and indeed, these two Dominican saints are shown as being very much of this world. Only the dramatic red cloth, draped above like a banner or canopy, suggests the majesty normally associated with Our Lady enthroned as Queen of heaven. The poverty of the earthly figures beneath is seen in the dirt on their bare feet. The Rosary is the prayer of those immersed in this “vale of tears.” The man kneeling on the left is focused on us. His dark clothes and white ruff show him to be a man of wealth and status. The column behind him suggests that he may be a member of the Colonna family, whose most famous son, Marcantonio Colonna, was the celebrated victor at Lepanto in 1571.
As the battle raged at sea, Confraternities of the Rosary prayed in Rome and the victory was attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary. The Pope, St Pius V, who was a Dominican, instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victories, on the anniversary of the battle. Nowadays, the feast is known as Our Lady of the Rosary (7th October). Almost every figure in this painting is doing something with his or her hands. The man on the left is no exception. With both hands, he holds up St Dominic’s cloak. Maybe he was a benefactor of the Order. But if he is a Colonna, then the gesture may also allude to the protection and shelter the family offered to Caravaggio himself throughout his career.
However, the circumstances of the commission are not known. But it is known that this large painting was put up for sale in Naples in 1607 just months after Caravaggio had departed for Malta. While Caravaggio painted St Francis many times, this his only known painting showing St Dominic. Perhaps, it was painted for the great Dominican Church in Naples, but unlike other works by Caravaggio, there is no obvious reason why this fairly orthodox treatment of the subject should have been taken down so quickly. Whatever the circumstances of the commission were, the subject is surely that of Our Lady of the Rosary as the intercessor for the poor and the afflicted. The great red banner suggests earlier paintings by other artists in which the poor and afflicted find protection and shelter under her outstretched cloak. The red cloth does the work of canopy, banner and sheltering cloak. May is traditionally a time for devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary and this month Pope Francis asks that we pray the Rosary invoking the intercession of Our Lady so that there will be an end to the pandemic. Our Lady of the Rosary pray for us.
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.