MADONNA DEI PALAFRENIERI – Caravaggio 1606
Commissioned by the confraternity of the Palafrenieri, this painting was originally intended for Saint Ann’s chapel in St. Peter’s. The prestigious confraternity was established in Rome in 1378 by the pontifical Palafrenieri, responsible for the Vatican stables and still active today. The protagonists of the painting are the Virgin, the Child Jesus and Saint Anne: the Virgin leans forward, holding the child with both hands and showing him how to crush a snake with his foot, a symbol of sin and heresy. Sant’Anna, mother of the Virgin Mary, attends the scene in a detached way, motionless as a statue. The figures that emerge from the darkness thanks to the light coming from the left of the picture, are inserted in an environment of which no details are distinguished.
As in all of Caravaggio’s works, light has a primary importance: it plays both a symbolic role, as it embodies the divine presence, and a practical one, serving the artist to define volumes and highlighting all the extremely realistic folds in the clothes of the two women. To reproduce the snake, the painter, always attentive to reality, was inspired by a cervone, a type of snake among the longest in Europe. The painting remained hung on the altar of the chapel of Sant ‘Anna, only for a few days, to be finally rejected. The details that caused the scandal were different. From the child too big to be represented naked, to the generous neckline of the Virgin Mary, to the incomprehensible detachment of Sant ‘Anna from the scene. The cardinals also saw an exaggerated involvement of Jesus in the killing of the serpent in Caravaggio’s painting so much that he considered heretical work.
The artist also used to paint the Virgin inspired by Lena, a well-known prostitute who had posed for Caravaggio again in the Madonna dei Pellegrini. The work was then sold for 100 scudi to the Borghese family in 1613. The last restoration carried out on the painting brought out the use of engravings on the canvas, to emphasize lines or contours, as a drawing, frequent in Caravaggio’s works . The cleaning of the painting has also returned the vivacity of the colors, in particular in the coils of the snake that show reverberations of light and in the luminous beam that falls from the height on the three figures. The painting by Caravaggio, criticized, rejected and sold off, confirms how often the great masterpieces are not understood by their contemporaries.