Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Ecstasy of Caravaggio

Caravaggio's Our Lady of the Pilgrims (image from Wikipedia)

Every time I happen to be in Rome for one reason or another, I usually make an effort to take some free time to go to see Caravaggio's "Our Lady of the Pilgrims." Often, I succeed because it is not very far from the central train station, in the Church of St. Augustine.

And I can tell you that, every time I have a chance to see this painting, it is a new shock, a new emotion, a new sensation, something that usually forces me to sit down somewhere, typically on the steps in front of the church, to recover my wits. Then, I can walk to the station and take the train home, a little shocked, but happy. 

I am not sure if I can comment on this painting (*); it is beyond my capabilities. Let me just say that Caravaggio managed an extraordinary feat. He is showing here ordinary people: an ordinary young mother with her child, ordinary travelers with their walking canes, with their feet dirty of a long, long walk. And, yet, at the same time, that woman is the all-holy Mother of God, truly the Panagia Theotokos herself, a miracle that repeats itself for me every time I am there. And it keeps going forever for the two figures kneeling in the painting who have been adoring this manifestation of the divine spirit for more than four centuries; never getting tired of doing that.

I don't know if everyone gets the same feeling when they see this painting; probably not. But for some of us, Caravaggio is not just a painter of religious subjects, he is a religion himself. And a painting such as the Lady of the Pilgrims is not just a painting about a religious revelation, it is a revelation in itself.

So, if you have a chance to be in Rome, try to take a look to this painting by Caravaggio, then you'll tell me what effect it made on you.

(*) But I might perhaps cite something written by the Emir Abd Al-Qadir around a century ago. As well known, Islam is not interested in images, but I think these words catch something of the mystical experience that at times come to people. Maybe the good Emir would have understood the meaning of Caravaggio's painting. 

"Our God and the God of all the communities opposing ours are truly and really a unique God, in agreement with what He said in several verses "Your God is a unique God" (Cor. 2:163; 16; 22, etc.). He also said: "There is no God but God" (Cor. 3:62). It is like this despite the diversity of His theophanies, their character absolute or limited, transcendent or immanent, and the variety of His manifestations. He manifested Himself to Moslems beyond all forms at the same time manifesting Himself in all forms. To the Christians, He manifested Himself in the person of Christ and of monks, as He says in the Book. To the Jews, He manifested Himself in the form of 'Uzayr and of the rabbis. To the Mazdians, in the form of fire, and to the dualists in the light and in the obscurity. And it manifested Himself to every worshipper of anything - stone, tree, or animal..  - in the shape of that thing: because no worshipper of a finite thing worships it for what it is itself. What he worships is the epiphany in that form of the attributes of the true God - be He exalted - with this epiphany representing, for each form, the divine aspect that pertains to Him."

Translated from "Abd el-Kader le magnanime", Gallimard 2003

H/t Antonio Cavaliere for having inoculated me with the Caravaggio virus


  1. I never thought to go to Rome, until now. Thank you Ugo! I love the halo around the Madonnas head.

  2. Missed this when last I was in Rome, but then, there's a lot to miss. Great post, and great quote at the end.

    The child appears bemused here (looking at a mere digital copy), and the mother seems to bear a great weight. Lovely work overall.

    1. Thanks for the interest, Peter and Mick. Next time you are in Rome, make sure to take a look at that painting. You won't regret that!