Believing without seeing

 Credere  DCM-003
05 March 2022

The modern pilgrim of Caravaggio

In the painting, Madonna of Loreto, known as the Madonna of the Pilgrims, Caravaggio abolishes the iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Child seated on the roof of the Holy House that angels carry to Loreto. The painting was commissioned for the church of Saint Augustine by Marquis Cavalletti in 1603. The originality of it is the depiction of the Madonna, which he derived from an ancient statue that was inside the Holy House of Loreto and which in turn has been mixed with the charm of a certain Lena, Maddalena Antognetti, Caravaggio’s lover.

However, the choice of a courtesan and the naked and dirty feet, a daily reality of the pilgrims who came to Rome in the Jubilee of 1600, led to criticism by art theorists but not to the rejection by the Council of Trent. Gabriele Paleotti writes that if to please the masses the painter can let himself go to every “sort of intemperance” he must do it “always staying with the decorum and dignity of the subject”. The painting expresses a double beauty, through two opposite interpretations of the needs of the people. On the one hand, by underlining how those poor people entrusted their miseries to Our Lady because they did not perceive in her a superior being, but one of them. In addition, contemporaneously the painting responds to the simplicity of popular faith that needs to confront the miraculous and the transcendent necessary to overcome daily miseries. Therefore, the people who knelt in front of the painting experienced an actual almost prophetic revolution of the eye, which also reflects the pilgrim of the Jubilee of 2000. “The human being is by nature a traveler, homo viator; we are inside a path that goes from the womb of the mother to that of mother earth, travelers thirsty for new horizons, open to the absolute and the infinite”.

Between Mary’s womb and the earth under the feet of the pilgrims a space opens up in which the true encounter happens; a believing without seeing. The Madonna appears as really existing in the painting and at the same time, the pilgrims in the painting do not really see her, while the observer is able to see the whole. “What we have before us is the image of an image, but at the same time the image of Mary herself”, writes Krüger, an art theorist; therefore, Caravaggio, as in other paintings, does not paint the illusion of someone who is not really there, but makes visible the presence of a person, distinguishable from the reality of the painting.

What makes Caravaggio’s painting divine is the immanence in seeing. A pilgrimage of the gaze itself.

by Yvonne Dohna Schlobitten

The Pilgrim Marquis

The Madonna of the Pilgrims or of Loreto is an oil painting on canvas (260x150 cm) by Caravaggio, datable to 1604-1606 and preserved in the Cavalletti Chapel in the Basilica of Saint Augustine in Rome.

The altarpiece was made thanks to a bequest from the Marquis Ermete Cavalletti, and was commissioned by his widow and executor Orinzia de ’Rossi.

The title of the Madonna of Loreto derives from the devotion of the noble family to the Madonna of Loreto and is attested by the contract of 1603.  The marquis’ devotion is also testified by his participation in a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Loreto a few months before his death.

In Italy, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the small village in the Marche region was one of the most frequently visited places by Catholics.