Caravaggio San Luigi dei Francesi and the Sant’Agostino

In 1600 Caravaggio was commissioned to decorate the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel of this church. Good pictures of the chapel can be found on the Web Gallery of Art website and Wikipedia. Many documents pertaining to this chapel have survived, so we have detailed information on the history of these paintings.

Giovanni Battista Falda San Luigi dei Francesi 1667-1666  large size     Giuseppe Vasi San Luigi dei Francesi ca. 1757 large size   Facade
Giovanni Battista Falda San Luigi dei Francesi 1667-1669


San Luigi dei Francesi       Youtube Khan Academy Contarelli Chapel (4.29 minutes)
Youtube Caravaggio’s First Public Commission | Beyond Caravaggio | National Gallery (3.59 minutes)
San Luigi dei Francesi pat of the facade

picture: Nonac_eos

The San Luigi dei Francesi, dedicated to the French St Louis, was built for the French community in Rome. The facade dates from 1589 and is attributed to Giacomo della Porta. One of the financiers of the church was Matthieu Cointerel, a Frenchmen who was appointed cardinal in 1583, and was better known under his Italian name Matteo Contarelli. He wanted to be buried in ‘his’ church and therefore had a chapel built. The painter Muziano was commissioned to paint the altarpiece, the walls and the chapel vault with six scenes from the life of the evangelist Matthew. When Contarelli died in 1585, Muziano had not yet started on the paintings. He died seven years later and still had not painted as much as a single brushstroke.

San Luigi dei Francesi Contarelli chapel
San Luigi dei Francesi Contarelli chapel Caravaggio

photo: Steven Zucker

Contarelli Chapel detail
Contarelli Chapel Caravaggio Rome

photo: Jason Micheli

The Crescendi family was entrusted with carrying out Contarelli’s last will. They commissioned the Flemish sculptor Jacob Cobaert to carve an altarpiece. Cavaleri d’Arpino was commissioned to do the paintings. However, he was so busy that he only had time for three small frescos on the vault. By 1599, the chapel had neither an altarpiece nor wall paintings. The priests of San Luigi were fed up. They turned to the Fabbrica di San Pietro (a papal commission for building projects), which had legal authority over pending estates. According to Caravaggio’s biographer Baglione, it was Del Monte’s mediation that led to Caravaggio being commissioned to paint the Inspiration of Matthew and the Martyrdom of Matthew, and three years later St Matthew and the Angel.

Caravaggio ‘Martyrdom of St Matthew’ big format Reconstruction first draft Treffers
Caravaggio  Martyrdom of St Matthew Contarelli chapel

Reconstruction: Bert Treffers, ‘Caravaggio Genius in Commission’, Sun, Nijmegen 1991 page 79

The martyrdom of St Matthew took place in Ethiopia. According to the Legenda Aurea, King Hirtacus ordered the apostle killed because St Matthew had converted his betrothed to Christianity who no longer wanted to marry the king. At the time, Contarelli had given Muziano detailed instructions on how to paint the representations. Based on these instructions, Caravaggio created a composition, which is not the same as the one you see here, but can be seen underneath this painting with the help of X-rays. Either Caravaggio or his client were probably unhappy with the result. Caravaggio simply painted the new painting over the old one.

It is reportedly possible to see the overpainting with the naked eye, but you would have to be up close, which unfortunately will not be possible. The original design was very traditional, placed against a background of monumental classical architecture. In the eventual painting, Caravaggio probably did use Contarelli’s instructions as a guideline, but the background has disappeared.

The focus is on details such as the altar and the steps, the saints bloody habit, the startled faces of the bystanders (Caravaggio included himself in the painting). The composition is reminiscent of a wheel, in which the murderer and his victim form the hub and the spectators the spokes. The sense of chaos is reinforced by the strong contrasts between light and dark (chiaroscuro). Bellori writes that Caravaggio used a high lamp that strongly lit the murderer and left the others in shadow. The figures are wearing contemporary clothes to remind the viewers that the past lives on in the present.

Caravaggio’s self-portrait as one of the fleeing onlookers in the Martyrdom is partly a kind of signature, in line with well-established Renaissance convention. A hunderd years earlier Luca Signorelli had included himself as a solemn witness at the end of the world, in his fresco cycle of scenes from the Book of Revelation in Orvieto Cathedral. Caravaggio too is a witness. Including himself in the scene may have been his way of proclaiming that he really did see it all unfold, just like this, in his mind’s eye. But there is perhaps more to it: he is not only an observer, but also a participent, a furtive accessory to the dreadful act. Like the converts in the foreground of the painting, he has stripped naked to be baptized; unlike them, he has gathered  his blanket around him and taken to his heels. The self-portrait, in this instance, reads like a mea culpa. If Caravaggio had actually been there, he suggests, he would have had no more courage than anyone els. He would have fled the others, leaving hte martyr to his fate. According to the logic of his own narrative, he remains unbaptized and therefore outside the circle of the blessed. He is a man running away, out of the church and into the street.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Caravaggio: A life Sacred and Profane,  Penguin Books 2011 pp. 201-202

The other chapel wall features the Calling of St Matthew. This is a representation of the moment at which Matthew bids his life as a tax collector farewell to follow Jesus. Caravaggio depicts the very moment at which St Matthew is being called. He appears to say: did you mean me?

Caravaggio ‘The Calling of St Matthew” large size           Video Khan Academy Calling of St Matthew (6.21 minutes)

picture:  Digital Cinematography on “Café Society” by Vittorio Storaro

St Matthew and his companions are counting money, which represents earthly greed. The old man with the glasses and the boy on the far left do not even look up, blinded as they are by material affairs; they will not be saved, unlike St Matthew and the other two boys. On the right are Christ and St Peter. Behind these two a shaft of light enters the room that touches the outstretched hand of Christ and falls on St Matthew; the Bible says: ‘Christ is the light of the world’ (St John 8:12). By the way, the outstretched hand is a ‘quote’ from the work of Michelangelo as you will see this afternoon.

With The Calling of St Matthew  Caravaggio was staking his claim to a place in the great Italian tradition of monumental religious painting. He had the confidence to weave an overt reference to that tradition into the very fabric of his picture. The hand that Christ holds out to Matthew is a direct paraphrase of one of the most celebrated images of Michelangelo’s  Sistine Chapel ceiling, a detail appropriated from The Creation of Adame in which the animating finger of God reaches towards the languid hand of the first man. Yet it is the hand of Adam, not God, that Caravaggio has chosen to give to his own solemnly beckoning figure of Christ. This apparent homage to Micheangelo is actually a statement of Caravaggio’s independence of thought, and the detail adds  a subtly appropriate layer of meaning to the picture. Caravaggio’s Christ becomes a second Adam, made in God’s image but purged of sin, calling Matthew to his redemption: ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15: 22)

Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Caravaggio: A life Sacred and Profane,  Penguin Books 2011 pp. 169-270

Contarelli chapel altar large size      Right and left side
Caravaggio Contarelli chapel

picture: jean louis mazieres

Caravaggio painted the altarpiece ‘St Matthew and the Angel’ last. Cobaert’s statue had been rejected by the clients because they didn’t like it. Caravaggio went to work and painted a rather rustic St Matthew with a big, balding head, a thick neck and strong arms and legs. His foot almost pokes out of the painting. He is staring wide-eyed at the Hebrew letters in his book that he has written under the guidance of a beautiful and elegant angel. As you can see, this is a different painting than the one that is hanging there now because this version was rejected.

Caravaggio ‘St Matthew and the Angel’ second and final version
First version burnt in 1945
Caravaggio ‘St Matthew and the Angel' Contarelli Chapel

The Council of Trent had decreed that religious images were to teach the faithful how to invoke holy intervention. Saints were virtuous examples of pious behaviour and dedication to God. The Council instructed the bishops to ensure that saints were never depicted as being ugly, unchaste, or in an irreverent or disrespectful manner. And that was exactly what his clients believed Caravaggio had done! St Matthew looked much too stupid and that was quite unacceptable. Fortunately, the original altarpiece was purchased by Giustiniani (it eventually ended up in Berlin where it was destroyed by fire in 1945) and Caravaggio painted a second version. In this painting, St Matthew looks much more noble, and bears a closer resemblance to the evangelist of the side walls. He himself is writing the words, while the angel is counting on its fingers: the Gospel of St Matthew starts with Jesus’ family tree; Jesus, the son of David, son of Abraham.

This church, built between 1479 and 1483, features one of the oldest renaissance facades in Rome.

Sant Agostino     Facade big size
Sant Agostino  facade Rome


Jacopo Sansovino ‘Madonna del Prato’        Large size
Jacopo Sansovino 'Madonna del Prato' Sant Agostino Rome

picture: Enric Martinez i Vallmitjana

It is said that the travertine used for the facade was taken from the Colosseum. This church also boasts several gorgeous works of art, including the statue ‘Madonna del Parto’ by Jacopo Sansovino and a fresco of the Prophet Isaiah by Raphael, but we are here to see Caravaggio.

Caravaggio ‘Madonna di Loreto’ large size     Cavaletti Chapel Sant Agostino
aravaggio 'Madonna di Loreto'  Cavaletti  Chapel Sant Agostino
Caravaggio Madonna di Loreto Cavaletti Chapel Sant Agostino

picture: Bruno Brunelli

Caravaggio Madonna di Loreto Cavaletti  Chapel Sant Agostino

photo: kamilica

In 1603 the Cavalettis, a noble family from Bologna acquired the rights to a chapel in the Sant’ Agostino. They dedicated the chapel to the Madonna di Loreto.

Caravaggio ‘Madonna di Loreto’ big size     Dirty feet
Caravaggio Madonna di Loreto

It is a representation of a Mary cult that originated from the Loreto sanctuary in the Italian province Le Marche. In the 13th century, St Mary’s house in Nazareth was miraculously moved to Loreto by angels after the Turks had invaded the Holy Land. The basilica of the Santa Casa di Loreto was built around the small wooden house in the 15th century. It grew into a popular place of pilgrimage. The Virgin Mary is standing on the threshold of her house with a fairly oversized child in her arms.

You would have to know that it’s the Santa Casa, because it looks just like any other Roman doorway. Two pilgrims kneel down at Mary’s feet (recognizable by their staffs) a man and an older woman, both shabbily dressed and with dirty bare feet. It is precisely these two figures that sparked an uproar. Ordinary Roman citizens loved it, but Baglione for instance did not like it at all. With their dirty feet and worn-out clothes, they looked just like the beggars that Rome was full of.

Caravaggio depicts the wonder that happens to two ordinary people, i.e. the apparition of Mary. Just like them, the viewer is invited to kneel down and receive the Child’s blessing.

Andrew Graham-Dixon in his, Caravaggio, ALife Sacrad and Profaneo, writes here pp. 290-291 Penguin Books 2011) the following:

“In  Caravaggio’s time, it was custom for pilgrims te enter Loreto barefoot, wearing simple clothes.  Their immediate  destination was the simple dwelling of the Holy House itself, which, like the modest barn of Francis of Assisi’sfirst  church, had been shoehorned into a splendid marble architectural casing, itself contained within the vast nave of a later cathedral. Once arrived, the pilgrims were to circle the holy dwelling three times, on there bare knees. […]
All this is implied prelude to Caravaggio’s gentle fantasy of a painting [..] It is the realization, in art, of every pilgrim’s dream. At the end of the barefoot, knee-scraping journey, a vision. The door to the Holy House has become the door to Heaven itself. The two weary pilgrims are greeted by the Virgin and Child and implicitly welcomed towards another, better place. They will have no futher need of their walking sticks, now the have gone this far.
Such is the sheer directness of its appeal to popular piety, The Madonna of Loreto has often been regarded as something of an embarrassment – a saccharine, sentimental picture, the only work in Caravaggio’s entire oeuvre with something of the chocolate-box about it. But in its time it was unusual and daring […]
There was an old tradition of including portraits  of men and woman who had paid for certain altarpieces within the work themselves. Such donor portraist, as they have become known, often place the kneeling figures of such pious benefactors to either side of the Virgin and Child [such as Filippo Lippi Nerli altarpiece Santo Spirito Florence]. They are included within the scene, yet they are also apart from it, witnesses rather than participants. In The Madonna van Loretozette,  Caravaggio turned this convention on its head, first by making the kneeling figures central to the sacred story […] and secondly by depicting them not as wealthy donors but as poor pilgrims. […] The man’s filthy naked feet, turned towards the viewer, emphasize  this shockingly complete inversion of an old pictural tradition.”

Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Caravaggio: A life Sacred and Profane,  Penguin Books 2011 pp. 290-291

The woman who modelled for the beautiful St Mary was new in Caravaggio’s work. She can also be seen in the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, and is probably the Lena that sparked the altercation with notary public Pasqualone that I mentioned earlier.

Caravaggio ‘Madonna dei Palafrenieri’ Villa Borghese Rome and a  detail
Caravaggio ‘Madonna dei Palafrenieri’ Villa Borghese Rome

The Madonna dei Palafrenieri was Caravaggio’s most prestigious assignment, which he received from the Archconfraternity of the Pontifical Grooms (Palafrenieri) on 1 December 1605. The painting was intended for St Peter’s (Madonna dei Palafrenieri St.Pieter reconstruction). The archconfraternity was responsible for all practical and ceremonial affairs in the papal household. Their patron saint was the Virgin Mary’s mother St Anne. In the painting you can see Mary and Jesus crushing a snake, therewith fulfilling a prophecy: God would send a second Eve to eradicate the sin of the first. The Virgin Mary and her child triumph over Satan. To contemporary viewers, however, the snake also symbolized the church’s victory over the greatest Satan: Protestantism. St Anne is in the painting in her capacity as patron saint but also due to her increasing popularity during the renaissance. Her cult flourished primarily during the Counter Reformation, because the more exemplary the mother’s life, the more credible the special status of her daughter.

The painting hung in St. Peter’s for just two days, after which it was transferred to the church of the Archconfraternity: the Sant’ Anna. Two months later it was sold to Cardinal Borghese, which is why it is now on display at the Galleria Borghese. Why? Was it rejected or did Borghese offer a lot of money for it? Was St Mary’s cleavage to pronounced or the child too naked? Did St Anne look too common? We just don’t know.

Entombment replica Vittrici Chapel


Caravaggio ‘Entombment’   300 x 203 cm. 1603-1604 large size
Vatican Pinacoteca
Caravaggio ‘Entombment’ 1603-1604 Vatican Pinacoteca
Caravaggio ‘Entombment’ detail Pinacoteca Vaticana            Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary Kleopas
Caravaggio ‘Entombment’  detail Pinacoteca Vaticana

I will provide some information here that is partly a repetition of what I have already written under Day 5: Caravaggio. Pope Gregory XIII, who was a close friend of Vittrici’s, introduced an indulgence for praying in his chapel in the Chiesa Nuova. Vittrici died before his chapel was completed. The chapel and altar were completed after his death. The pope reiterated that the privilege that was granted must be upheld. This meant that a chapel like the one we are standing before now, was very popular with the faithful, because it would get you an indulgence. The Santa Maria in Vallicella, as this church is officially called, houses a total of 12 altar pieces in the chapels near the aisles. These altar pieces form a single continuing story about the Road to Calvary. Each of the altar pieces includes a representation of the Virgin Mary among the other figures.

Chiesa Nuova or the Santa Maria in Vallicella three out of ten side chapels        Ground plan number 3 right
Chapel of the Crucifixion
Cappella dell’Ascensione
First chapel right
Scipione Pulzone
Altar piece ‘Crucifixion’
  Chapel of Vittrici dedicated to the Pietà
Cappella (Vittrici) della Pietà
Second chapel right
Copy to Caravaggio by Michele Koeck
Altar piece ‘Entombment’
  Chapel of Ascension
Cappella dell’Ascensione
Third chapel right
Girolamo Muziano
Altar piece ‘Christ’s Ascension’

The two chapels adjoining the Vittrici Chapel feature altar pieces depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. The Entombment that Caravaggio painted for the Vittrici Chapel fits in perfectly. Many of the altar pieces had already been completed when Caravaggio started on his altar piece in 1603. We will compare the adjoining Crucifixion by Pulzone with Caravaggio’s work. You will see that Caravaggio not only makes the story properly connect with Pulzone’s painting, but also some of the figures and their clothing, for instance the red robe and green cloak. St John (the man close to Christ in the green cloak and red robe) has the same face as the apostle painted by Pulzone The light that comes from the right and the diagonal composition perfectly match this chapel’s natural lighting. If you stand in front of this replica, it seems like you form part of the entombment; you are standing in the grave looking up. Rubens, who six years later worked on his altar piece above the main altar here, agreed. However, he felt that Caravaggio’s composition did not make clear where exactly Christ would be laid to rest. Several years later Rubens was to paint an entombment that did make this clear.

P. P. Rubens ‘The Entombment’1611-12 large size
Peter Paul  Rubens The Entombment 1611-12 National Gallery of Canada Ottawa

P. P. Rubens ‘The Entombment’ oil on wood, 88 x 66 cm, 1611-1612, National Gallery of Canada Ottawa

Rubens did not understand why Caravaggio painted this specific composition, which was never intended as a good description of the actual site. Central to this painting is its deeper meaning and the atmosphere of the entombment. It is more of an icon than a story, which also applies to Michelangelo’s Pietá. In his letter to the Romans (Romans 6: 4-6) Paul explains the link between entombment and resurrection. Man must follow Christ in death to be able to lead a new life. This idea is only properly illustrated when during consecration the priest raises his host while standing before the altar, and then right before the painting of the grave and the dead Christ speaks the words: ‘for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Do this, as often as you do this, in memory of Me. The worshippers attending mass could actually see the body of Christ while listening to these words. Seen in this light, it is an icon of the Corpus Domini.

If you compare Raphael’s entombment, which you will see in the Villa Borghese, with this one you will notice big differences. Raphael strongly idealised his figures. In a famous letter to Castiglioni, he wrote that he did not use models, but ideas. Caravaggio’s figures in this altar piece are very realistic, for instance Nicodemus, the man in the foreground on the right, St John or Mary or Maria of Clopas. Caravaggio used a Roman street girl as a model for Mary of Clopas, the woman who throws up both hands. The gesture she makes is very classical, it can be found on many a sarcophagus from antiquity.

Caravaggio ‘Entombment’ detail John’s right hand zoom in
Caravaggio detail ‘Entombment’
Youtube Caravaggio Entombment  Vatican (3.53 minutes)
Behind Nicodemus are seen the mourning Marys, one with her arms upraised, another with her veil raised to her eyes, and the third looking at the Lord.  Caravaggio had Michelangelo in mind again when he created The Entombment. Pierto Vittrice’s burial chapel was dedicated to the Pietà, the solitary lamentation of Mary over the dead Christ.
Caravaggio deliberately harked back to one of the most hallowed images of that earlier event in the story, namely Michelangelo’s marble Pietà  in St Peter’s. The limp right arm of Caravaggio’s dead Christ, with its prominent veins, is a direct paraphrase in paint of the same element in Michelangelo’s [armhandlegs] composition. The flesh of the arm gently bulges over the supporting hand of St John, just as it does over the hand of the Virgin Mary in the marble Pietà. But in Caravaggio’s  painting, John’s hand inadvertently opens the wound in Christ’s side. For the pathos and poetry of Michelangelo’s sculpture, in which Mary mourns the man she once cradled as a child, Caravaggio substitutes his own intense morbidity. Caravaggio’s dead Christ is punishingly unidealized. He truly is the Word made in flesh: a dead man, a real corpse weighing heavily on those who struggle to lay him to rest. John strains not to drop the sacred burden. Nicodemus stoops awkwardly as he clasps the body around the knees in a bear-hug, locking his right fist like a clamp around his left forearm. Once more, the painter emphasizes the bare feet of Christ and his disciples. Nicodemus’s feet, so firmly planted on the tomb slap by the heavy load of the corpse, are veined and creased at the ankle. […]  His winding sheet dangles below the tomb slab, touching the leaves of a plant – a juxtaposition perhaps meant to symbolize the hope of a new life brought even to the darkness of the grave.  Pietro Vittrice had especially venerated the Holy Shroud of Turin, fabled as the winding sheet in which Christ had had been interred.”

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio A Life Sacred and Profane, Penguin Books, 2011 pp. 279-280

Typical of Caravaggio is the inattentive St John’s hand that comes out from under Christ’s armpit with his fingers opening up Christ’s wound. This sort of detail is characteristic of Caravaggio. If you still have the image of Michelangelo’s Pietà in your head, you will realise that Caravaggio used that work for inspiration, as he was wont to do. Wikipedia: The Entombment of Christ

One painting that we are not going to see, but that I want to briefly discuss because it forms part of the series of public commissions in Rome, is Death of the Virgin that Caravaggio painted for the Santa Maria della Scala.

Caravaggio ‘Death of Mary’ large size      Mary
Video Khan Academy (3.56 minutes)

This church was administrated by the Discalced Carmelites, which was founded by St Teresa of Avila. St Mary’s death is usually depicted according to the Biblical apocrypha, which state that St Mary appeared to be falling asleep when she died. This took three days, after which she ascended to heaven. (on August 15th). Caravaggio’s painting was rejected, probably because he used a prostitute for his model. (Rumour has it that he used the body of a pregnant prostitute who committed suicide by drowning herself in the Tiber river) From Manguel page 298.

The Death of the Virgin is the most bleakly mundane of Caravaggio’s sacred dramas, the deathbed scene of a poor and ordinary woman. It drew another of Longhi’s pithy metaphors: ‘a scene from a night refuge’, he called it.  The Virgin’s dwelling is certainly poor and humble, with its rough plasterd wall and simple ceiling of coffered wood.  Her feet, bare like those of the apostles, poke out straight and stiff from the folds of her dress. There is perhaps a hint that rigor mortis has begun to set in. The copper basin on the floor of the room adds a final note of pathos. The body of the Virgin, too, is an empty vessel, and there is little hint of transcendence.
There is a stratagem behind the painting’s apparent mood of hopeless bereavement: it invites the viewer into the darkness and doubt of death. It even dares -the deepest fear of all, in an age of faith -that perhaps this meagre life is all that there is. But peer into the gloom and all is not as it seems. […]
The signs of salvation have to be looked for, even if at first sight they appear to be lacking. The Virgin’s face is much younger than those of the apostles, which indicates that she has been spared by God the ravages of age. The thinnest of haloes, shining in the dark air, encircles her head. Above her  a great swag of drapery hangs from the ceiling of the room. Literally, it is the canopy of the Virgin’s bed, but spiritually it is a sign from above. Its colour relates to her body, while its form tells the story of her soul. It is being drawn upwards, whirled to heaven by unseen energies.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Caravaggio: A life Sacred and Profane, Penguin Books 2011 pp. 310-311

Even though the Carmelites rejected the painting it was highly praised by others. It was put on display in the collections of the dukes of Mantua, Charles I of England and Louis XIV and today is one of the top pieces of the Louvre.

Palazzo Doria Pamphil   Caravaggio The pentance Mary MagdaleneRest during the flight into EgyptSt John the Baptist
Youtube  (2.59 minutes)
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj Caravaggio The pentance Mary Magdalene, Rest during the flight into Egypt, St John the Baptist

photo: kamilica

Other paintings of Caravaggio in Rome Palazzi, Galleries and Museums:

Barberini Corsini
Doria Pamphilj
 Judith and HolofernesNarcissusSaint Francis in Prayer
Boy with a Basket of fruitSt Jerom, Sick BacchusSt John the BaptistMadonna dei PalafrenieriDavid and Goliath
Pope Paul V, Fortune-Teller
The pentance Mary Magdalene,St John the BaptistRest during the flight into Egypt

We will now walk back and go to the Pantheon.

 On our way to the Pantheon

photo: Belinda Fewings

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