Madonna of the rosary 1607 - by Caravaggio


St. Dominic (1170-1221), the Spanish founder of the Dominican Order, is said to have been handed a string of beads by the Virgin in a vision and to have referred to it as 'Our Lady's crown of roses'. The rosary later became a widespread device for counting prayers upon, and paintings of the Madonna of the Rosary or The Vision of St. Dominic became popular, especially in Dominicans-churches. We know from references in letters by Ottavio Gentili and Frans Pourbus that Caravaggio's picture of this subject was on sale in Naples during September 1607, and from Pourbus's letter that it had originally been painted as an altarpiece and was presumably rejected. The circumstances of the commission are undocumented, although Pourbus said that it was actually painted in Naples, but there is no indication why the picture had been rejected. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such a sober and deferential treatment of the subject could have proved unacceptable, unless it was because of the slightly unusual iconography involving St. Dominic, who was usually seen receiving the rosary from the Virgin, but who, in Caravaggio's composition, acts as a mediator, distributing rosaries to the poor on the Virgin's instructions (Plate Vila).

The most intelligent guess as to the original patron is that of Hess, who sees in the figure of the donor, in a ruff on the left, a portrait of the Principe Marzio Colonna, Caravaggio's protector in the Alban Hills. This view is corroborated by the positioning of a column, colonna, directly above him; the column was a prominent feature of the Colonna coat of arms. The price asked for the picture in Naples was the high one of 400 ducats. It was bought by the Flemish painter Louis Finson who took it back to the Netherlands where it was acquired from his heirs by a committee of artists and art lovers, including Rubens, in c. 1619 and presented by them to the Dominican Church of St. Paul in Antwerp, where it remained until it passed to Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1780. It has been argued that the colouring of the picture is too light for Caravaggio's Neapolitan period, and that the Madonna of the Rosary must, therefore, have been begun in Rome, especially as there were so many other pictures apparently executed in Naples in 1607 that there would hardly have been time for another work of this size. This explanation is possible, all the more so since we now know that Caravaggio was in Malta by July 1607. Nevertheless, Friedlaender's attempt to link the picture with an unspecified one which Caravaggio was painting for Cesare d'Este, Duke of Modena, in 1605/06 and had not completed at the time of his flight from Rome in May would seem to founder on the relatively low price, fifty or sixty scudi, which the artist was asking from the duke, as compared with the price of 400 ducats asked for the Madonna of the Rosary in Naples.