Counter-reformation artists like Caravaggio encouraged the faithful with ever more fervor to turn to Mary in times of need.
During the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this series of articles looks at how the Church responded to this turbulent age by finding an artistic voice to proclaim Truth through Beauty. Each column looks at how the works of art were designed to confront one of the challenges raised by the Reformers with the soothing and persuasive voice of art.
The notion of Marian intercession posed quite a problem for Protestants. The rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over Marian doctrines such as the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception was far less troubling than dismissing centuries of images of the gentle Virgin comforting the faithful and directing prayers to her Son. Depictions of the Blessed Mother — from wide-eyed icons penetrating to the most private intention, to her capacious mantle gathering faithful under her protection — had ingrained in the Catholic imagination Mary as the “most gracious advocate” of the Salve Regina.
The Renaissance had transformed intercessory images of Mary into sacred conversations, where several saints, gathered around an enthroned Mother and Child, quietly invoked her for prayers and intentions.
The Counter-Reform era pressed this advantage and revitalized images of Marian intercession, encouraging the faithful with even more fervor to turn to Mary in times of need. A string of artists—Domenichino, Cigoli, Guido Reni and Massimo Stazione—produced images of the Madonna of the Rosary, the quintessential Marian devotion. These proliferated in religious houses, in churches and even in private homes, but perhaps the most striking was Caravaggio’s version, painted in 1607.
Instead of placing the Blessed Virgin floating on heavenly clouds and supported by cushions of angels, Caravaggio chose to seat Mary in a crowded room, only slightly elevated above the throng. A few Dominican saints gather around her, a common iconographical practice given that St. Dominic is credited with having promoted the practice of the Rosary. St. Peter Martyr, recognizable from the gash left by an axe in his forehead, turns to the viewers encouraging them to join the petitioners. A mother and child kneel alongside a barefoot beggar and a noble in discreet finery (probably the patron), all beseeching Mary’s intercession. Caravaggio’s stark figures, rigorously drawn from life, lend an immediacy to the scene; all people require assistance and the Mother of God hears all prayers.
Caravaggio chose to stretch a scarlet curtain as a backdrop as opposed to filling the space with cerulean clouds, just as he did with the Death of the Virgin. Red, the color of mortality, swathes the human needs and fears that drive the faithful to our lady. A mysterious light enters from the right, caressing her face but illuminating the nude child in her arms, Jesus. While Mary invites St. Dominic to distribute the rosaries, the Christ Child looks out at the viewer. Clearly there is direct communication with this mysterious Child, but it is also understandable that one might want to gain the support of His mother.
The master of Mary as supreme intercessor, however, was none other than Michelangelo. Although best known for his male figures, the colossal David or the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo spent a lifetime perfecting his images of Mary, from the Roman Pieta executed at age 25 up to her amazing appearance in the Last Judgment painted when the artist was in his sixties. Here her iconography is so startling that many secular art historians have proposed that the figure of the Virgin nestled by the side of Christ was cowering helpless before the wrath of her Son (although what Jewish mother was ever afraid of her son?), but there is little reason to suspect that such a thought ever crossed Michelangelo’s mind.
The Last Judgment was painted at the height of the Protestant Reformation and on the eve of the Council of Trent. Pope Paul III had personally chosen Michelangelo for the task of decorating the altar wall where cardinals, bishops and other prelates would look at the painting from their privileged proximity. Confronting viewers with the vivid depiction of figures “uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13), part of the painting’s function was to remind them that one day they would too be exposed before Christ the Judge. And what a fearful Judge Michelangelo evoked. The most powerful figure in Michelangelo’s formidable repertoire, the musclebound heroic Jesus appears to unleash his full strength, but the fearsome form culminates in His aloof gaze. Painted in profile, Jesus looks strikingly like a stern and distant Grecian statue. How could the faithful find the courage to beg for mercy before such astounding glory?
Here Michelangelo highlighted the intercession of the Virgin like no other before him. In earlier images, Mary was usually seated below Christ on a lower tier facing John the Baptist, but here Michelangelo placed her next to Jesus, curled by his side. Viewers immediately note the dramatic gesture of the Lord’s hand sweeping across his body towards Hell, often missing the gentle fingers curled around his wound beckoning souls to Him. Mary sits by that opening in His side, the wound from whence the Church sprang, and she is the conduit to His mercy.
Her close contact with Christ is reminiscent of Eve emerging from Adam’s side that Michelangelo painted on the Sistine chapel ceiling 20 years earlier. Furthermore, Michelangelo accentuated her femininity in a way that no artist had ever dared previously. With her elongated limbs, her arched foot, her sinuous pose, Mary here appears as the Church, the beloved bride of Christ, to whom the Bridegroom can refuse nothing. Interestingly, Michelangelo found his model for this Mary in a statue of Venus, the pagan goddess of love. It is love that moves Christ to mercy, and no one has known God’s love more than Mary, immaculately conceived and assumed bodily into Heaven. Her arms are crossed over her chest as in the images of her fiat before the angel Gabriel, just as Mary said yes to God, He says yes to all that she asks.
Rare is the moment when an art historian can prove her claim, and this case is the Hope diamond of art history. Drawings are the most telling way of understanding an artist’s thought process, but Michelangelo, tragically, was notorious for destroying his. But amid the paltry preparatory designs for the Last Judgment, two telling ones remain.
In the first version, the artist placed Mary in her usual place, slightly lower and to the right of Christ. She leans forward however, hands clasped in supplication before her Son. The second drawing envisioned Mary approaching Jesus, bowed in deference but her arms open as if spreading her mantle of protection, while hopeful souls cluster behind her.
In the final version, Michelangelo boldly nestled Mary next to Christ, co-mediatrix and intercessor up to the point of judgment. Ultimately, in this enormous fresco, her intercession is effective; only a small fraction of souls wind up condemned — and apparently there are no women in Michelangelo’s Hell.
Thank you, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.