“The Entombment”, Carravaggio, 1602-04, Vatican Museums. This altarpiece was originally intended for a side chapel dedicated to the pietà in the newly rebuilt Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (commonly known as the Chiesa Nouva) which was the Church of the Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Rome. What drew my attention first was the great slab of stone which projects out of the picture, and on it, the firmly planted feet of Joseph of Arimathea. Standing back a bit, the eye moves from the upward reaching hands of Mary Magdalene to the face of Joseph, who looks straight at us, then across the body of Christ and down to his arm which touches the cold stone lying upon the bare earth. Our Lady , now an old woman, is dressed almost as a nun might be. Her hands are outstretched as in those other paintings where her outstretched mantle offers merciful protection to those below. As an altarpiece, the painting positions the dead body of Christ so that it is in line with the consecrated host when elevated at Mass. But after Mass the bare feet remain. The bare feet of Joseph are matched by those of the dead Christ. In the thought and piety of the patrons for this work, and in the thinking of Caravaggio himself, going barefoot was a sign of faithful discipleship. Christ had instructed the Twelve not to take even sandals for the journey (Lk 10:4) But, of course, this is also a realistic representation of those who had no choice in the matter: the poor. This particular circle of patrons were part of what is now referred to as the pauperist movement. Under the direction of Philip Neri and his followers, they advocated frequent reception of the sacraments, spiritual exercises, the giving of alms and going on pilgrimages, but it was their attitude to the poor which was most distinctive. Although they worked to alleviate poverty, they did not see it as something to be eradicated. In fact, in these circles it was believed that poverty was ordained by God and cited scripture to support this view. This group saw the giving of alms as a spiritual act which was meritorious in itself. They saw the humility of Christ in the ragged clothes and humble demeanour of the poor on the streets of the Rome. For them it was entirely appropriate that Caravaggio’s paintings should be populated by non-idealised and realistic paupers. Their embrace of poverty was purely spiritual and rarely moved beyond almsgiving or participation in the work of confraternities set up to aid the poorest of the poor. In fact, throughout the 1600’s the number of poor people on the streets of Rome grew and with each passing decade attitudes to the poor hardened. It is not often noticed that in this image Joseph wears a reddish tunic girded with a belt made of rope which is very like the robe of the Arciconfraternita della of SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini e Convalescenti, which was a Roman organisation which sought to aid poor pilgrims. The patron for the painting was very likely to have been a member of this archconfraternity ,or at least a supporter of it. So while we see in this painting, on a human level, the great pathos of the burial of a loved one, and on a spiritual level, the sacrifice of Christ and the corporal works of mercy, behind it lies something which is darker, the reality of poverty and of the poor who are always with us (Lk 26:11) and a definite blindness to injustice clothed in spiritual dress. We might need to ponder what true humility is more deeply and more broadly, so so that like Joseph of Arimathea our feet are planted firmly on the rock.
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