“There is no secret of the psyche that Caravaggio cannot find out,” writes Professor Freedberg of the artist’s Death of the Virgin, which now hangs in the Louvre, disfigured by dark varnish. Although he elaborates on his meaning, this is the most surprising sentence in his book—indeed, the most surprising sentence in any of the three books under review. Was Caravaggio trying to find out the psyche’s secrets? Did artists ever try to do this, even in portraiture (a branch of painting, incidentally, in which Caravaggio seems to have been singularly unsuccessful), before the middle of the last century? And even if we assume that artists can find out the secrets of the psyche, how do they reveal them to us?
For Alfred Moir the St. John in the Borghese Gallery in Rome (possibly Caravaggio’s last painting) is perhaps indulging in “fantasies of physical gratification”; for Sydney Freedberg the communion between the artist and the model is here “a gentle, tragic-seeming one, which knows too well the transience of the mortal world.” Such apparently conflicting sentiments are (alas) certainly not incompatible—but, whether separate or combined, they are excessively difficult to convey in any picture that does not depend on a familiar story. For Freedberg this picture appears to reflect an aspect of Caravaggio’s own psyche: but that psyche remains tantalizingly inaccessible to us.
Many people today would agree with the authors of all three books that the Death of the Virgin is a work of extraordinary emotional power. “Mary lies on a kind of litter, a poor woman, plainly dressed and barefoot, too weak to have crossed her hands in prayer and too worn even to welcome the release of death”—the vivid description is Moir’s. The stark room is barely indicated, but the falling folds of a heavy red bed hanging which has been attached to the ceiling give the scene a certain grandeur. The Magdalene, in orange and white, sits on one side of the bed, her head bowed in grief; on the other side stand the tall, robed, barefooted Apostles—those who are near the stiff, ungainly corpse gaze at it with reverence and sorrow, those at the back of the room appear to be talking gravely among themselves.
Caravaggio was already a very famous artist when (in the early years of the seventeenth century) he painted this altarpiece for the family chapel of a papal lawyer in the church of S. Maria della Scala in Trastevere in Rome; but not long after its installation it was removed and put up for sale because the Carmelite Friars, to whom the church had been entrusted a few years earlier, objected to Caravaggio’s treatment of the subject. After the event (but while memories of it were still fresh) a number of writers gave similar (though slightly differing) reasons for the objections caused by the picture. Caravaggio, it was said, had used a prostitute as a model for the Virgin (the church …