“Madonna of the Rosary”, Caravaggio, 1604/05, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna. There are no less than four Dominicans in this painting, but only two can be identified. St Dominic is on the left and St Peter Martyr is on the right. In fact all that we know about this large altarpiece is that it was offered for sale in Naples in 1607 with a price tag of 400 scudi. By that date, Caravaggio had moved on to Malta in the hope of becoming Knight of Malta and thereby gaining immunity from prosecution. Nobody knows for certain when it was painted or for which church. The date given above, assumes it was painted in Rome along with altarpieces such as the Madonna of Loreto. It is certainly quite similar in style and some of the models used are the same. However, it may well been painted in Naples just after he arrived there in 1606. He had spent the summer in the the Alban Hills on the estates of the Colonna family and under their protection. The small man kneeling on the left is clearly the donor. But nobody knows for sure who he is. The column which rises behind him may well suggest that he is in fact a member of the Colonna family, and the great red cloth draped across the top of the picture may be there to evoke their protection and patronage, which Caravaggio enjoyed throughout his career. The donor looks out at the viewer as he holds up St Dominic’s cappa. This gesture is reminiscent of paintings of Our Lady of Mercy where the faithful are shown sheltering under her mantle. Again the red cloth might be intended to evoke her care for us all. The four Dominican saints stand and do not kneel before her. St Dominic is on the left with rosary beads hanging from his outstretched hands. His gazes back at Our Lady. You can just see a star on his forehead, which is one of his symbols. He is offering the beads to the people who kneel at his feet and it would seem that Our Lady is in fact ordering him to do so. This is significantly different from those paintings in which Our Lady gives St Dominic the Rosary. Here it is Dominic who hands on the Rosary to the faithful. This surely a pictorial representation of the Dominican motto, Contemplata Alliis Tradere, the handing on of the fruits of contemplation. The poor people reach out with a disconcerting urgency. We see their hands, not their faces. This fits with the recitation of the Rosary, as the beads are held in the hand. But Naples was at that time a city of huge economic disparity. The city’s streets teemed with poor people and the elite feared the mob. Perhaps ,Caravaggio intended to pick up on this, with his unsettling image of the poor. What is clear to me, is that this was painted for Dominicans and those closely aligned with them. On the right, St Peter Martyr can be identified by the still-bleeding gash on his forehead. The bleeding wound corresponds to Dominic’s star: so two modes of Dominican witness are presented. St Peter Martyr looks straight at us but points back at Our Lady and the Christ Child. It was his success in preaching against heresy which led him to martyrdom. The painting is part the Order’s promotion of Rosary and the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The mantle of protection extends to those who pray to her, especially in the Rosary. This painting really is a most eloquent statement of Dominican orthodoxy. , But those poor kneeling barefoot people leave me slightly uneasy.
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