Advent in Art 05: The Madonna of the Snake

Derek McCormack
Sunday, 18 December 2005

The Madonna and the Serpent, 1605-6, Michelangelo Caravaggio

Reflections by Derek McCormack

This painting often referred to as the Madonna and the Serpent is by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who lived and worked in sixteenth century Italy. 

He called himself Merisi or Michel, or just M or one of several other names – almost never Caravaggio, the name we give him from the town he grew up in.   

He began life in a household with his father, mother and maternal grandmother as the caring adults.  His father, an architect, and his grandmother died of the plague when he was a young child and so he was raised with his siblings by his mother.

Caravaggio is known for dramatic paintings of Christian themes which were in their time, and still, revolutionary for several qualities:

Their realism – in which Caravaggio reacted against the idealistic representations of religious characters;
Their use of light and dark – by which lit characters appear in dark atmospheric and unknowable surroundings;
Their humanity – the lighted and realistic characters show human frailties, sympathies and reactions. 

The drama of Caravaggio’s work comes from a passionate style whereby he dispensed with the usual preparations of most artists of the time and painted directly from the models with no sketching or studies.

In this painting done when he was thirty we see three figures and a snake.   There is an older woman dressed in the brown tones of earth, perhaps of dust.  She is lined, tanned, weary, and she helplessly watches a younger woman, attractive, sexy, fertile in the prime of her life, with a naked child, stamp on a snake.   The younger woman is dressed in red – the colour of the flesh and humanity.  Her skirts are hitched up on her waist like a worker or someone looking after little children.   The younger woman holds the child just as you might if you were about to pick him up, or were putting him down, or were holding him back.   The child is naked. We may wonder why – but not if we ever tried to raise little children.  It seems a universal characteristic, almost of Eden, paradisiacal; they seem to disrobe for no reason, other than the natural comfort and freedom of it.

The painting was commissioned by the papal grooms at the suggestion of Pope Paul V and his nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese.  The painting’s proper name in English, though it is normally rendered in Latin, is “the Madonna of the Papal Grooms”.   It depicts the Madonna – Mary – and her mother, the grandmother of Jesus – the apocryphal St Anne.  Thus the halos; a small concession to the religious art conventions of Caravaggio’s time.  The chapel of the papal grooms was the church of Saint Anne.   The painting must have been a disappointment or a disgrace for the grooms because just weeks after its installation in their church they sold it to the canny art collector cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had been instrumental in getting it painted in the first place.  It is likely that he got it at a bargain price, far less than the Vatican paid to commission it, and it still resides today with five other Caravaggios in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

You can imagine why the papal grooms didn’t like it.  Saint Anne was usually depicted with the warm pink old face of a fairy godmother or a cheerful nun.  Here she looks like a gypsy, to quote a critic of the time, rather than a nun.  It is an insult to their patroness.  Mary is usually depicted wearing red and blue symbolizing the incarnation of the divine from heaven (blue) in the flesh.  Here she is just in the flesh - the red colour.  And worse Caravaggio’s realism makes her a perfect and recognizable likeness of the model – who was Lena, a well known prostitute of the time.   And thirdly, Christ is completely naked – not as a babe in arms – that’s okay -  but as a little boy with his bits waving around and even specially lit up. 

But despite these improprieties Caravaggio was true to several themes of the faith in what he rendered.  

He presents the generations of women – a reflection of his own childhood family perhaps – but also the Bible.   In Genesis we read that after the serpent has tempted Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil God pronounces that he will make the serpent crawl on the ground and eat dust – and the offspring of Eve will crush the serpents head and the serpent will bite their heels.

This serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden is the tempter, the liar, the adversary - not just of God but of humankind – the offspring of Eve – for the aim of the serpent is the death of humanity.

So here we have the offspring of Eve in the line of descent from Eve crushing the serpent’s head.  Rather than St Anne and Mary, we might see here Eve the mother of fallen humanity and Mary her offspring and yet also the mother of the new Adam – first in the line of resurrected and restored humanity.    Together – Mary and Jesus crush the serpent’s head – as Eve looks on.    And the curses of Eden are at once fulfilled and reversed.

The figures of the painting are in two distinct groups.  On the right side is Anne, or Eve, with serpent almost emerging from skirts.   On the left is Mary with Jesus.   Between the two is a dark shadow.  The abyss of death perhaps, for on the right is a figure in whom you detect both the signs of youth that has been lost, and the decay of death that is to come. And for Caravaggio perhaps the death that had already come to his Grandmother, struck down with the plague, the black death.   The figure cast with death is separated from the beauty,  youth and life of Mary and the young and innocent child – who bears the mark of the innocence of pre-fall Eden, which is nakedness. 

But there are two elements that cross the gulf of black shadow – this shadow of the valley of death.  One is the hand of the Christ child.  The other is the serpent.

Is the hand of the Christ child reaching out to touch Anne? Or is it waving around childishly, with excess energy, accidentally casting our life towards her, because that is what the kingdom of heaven is like: an abundant scattering of life and blessing almost without caring where it goes;  unmeasured; waved about excessively; like the abundant left-overs at the feeding of the five thousand, like the careless forgiveness of sinners, like the father running to embrace his prodigal son careless of what his other sons thought, like the shepherd leaving ninety nine to find just one. 

Or, rather than a carefree accident of childish exuberance, do we see in the child a prefiguring of the deliberate sacrifice of Christ that crosses death.  Is there here already the cast of a naked Christ, an arm stretched out, a hand clawed in pain, a head bowed down, a wounded side – which is clasped - and foot pierced upon the serpent’s tooth.   Is this a pre-figuring of the sacrifice that reverts the work of the adversary, who here is depicted writhing beneath its power.

And also crossing the dark gulf down the centre of the painting is the adversary reaching out to grasp life – and continue the work of its destruction.  The serpent crosses the abyss.

Now you may very well ask – is this an advent painting?  Where is this in the Christmas story?

Caravaggio has not let us down.   As well as reminding us of Eden and the curse of the fall of humankind, the serpent is the symbol of Egypt.   The Pharaoh wore the serpent on his forehead.  Jeremiah describes Egypt’s flight from battle as the snake going down its hole.  Here Mary and Jesus are walking on Egypt, as she holds him protectively, her foot under his.  This reminds us that to save Jesus’ life the holy family escaped with him to Egypt, because Herod, the adversary in the advent story, wanted to kill him.
Fred Craddock describes this part of the Christmas story:
   The mood has shifted since Christmas day:
   exit shepherds, enter Wise Men;
   exit stables, enter palace;
   exit poverty, enter wealth;
   exit angels, enter dreams;
   exit Mary's lullaby; enter Rachel weeping for her

The wise men, may have come to visit Jesus.  He is perhaps two years old and they go to the King of the Jews, Herod, to ask: where he is he who is born king of the Jews for we have seen his star in the East and are come to worship him?  Jesus in the painting is probably two or three – according to my theory of bodily proportions anyway. You’re half you’re adult height when you’re two.  Here Jesus seems to be a little more than half the height of the women and therefore about half his own adult height.  (His limbs perhaps look a little more like those of a three-year old or so.)

Herod is a jealous and passionately violent man.  He is the king of the Jews.  He is called king of the Jews.  But he is not a Jew – he is an Idumean – or Edomite – a descendent of Esau the brother of Jacob aka Israel, the father of the Israelites who, rather than Esau, has the blessings of his father Isaac and the blessing of the Angel that he wrestled with – its all there in the second half of Genesis.

Herod overthrew the royal Jewish family with support of first the Roman Mark Antony and then of Antony and Cleopatra’s nemesis, Caesar Augustus.  Herod had originally sided with the losers, Antony and Cleopatra, but after it is clear he’s backed the wrong horse he pledges his support to the victorious Augustus in an audacious about face. 

Herod tries to be a good Jew, to win support of his subjects who mostly despise him because of his ethnic background and his support for Rome’s occupation.  He builds a new temple better than Solomon’s – he eats Kosher – he follows the religious festivals – he marries a Jew, Miriam, who is of the rightful royal family.   All this he does out of jealous anxiety – to hold tight to the throne of the kingdom of the Jews.   Josephus, the Jewish historian describes him as a great general and builder but in the end a madman of vicious temper.  There was rejoicing when he died.  Herod himself predicted this, so he had members of the leading families rounded up and imprisoned to be killed when he died so there would be some mourning at the occasion of his passing.   He had his Jewish wife killed for plotting against him.  He killed several of his own sons.  Caesar Augustus remarked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.  In Greek, the lingua franca of the time, the two words, pig and son, sound similar so he was making a pun.  The wry joke was that Herod wouldn’t kill a pig to eat it because he was playing at being Jewish and pigs aren’t kosher – but he killed his sons at the merest hint that they might usurp him with the careless ruthlessness that a Roman would kill a pig for the table.

Then into the life of this jealous usurper comes the news of another King of the Jews.  Where is he that is born to be King of the Jews? ask the magi.  By being solicitous with the visitors Herod tries to discover who and where this possibly rightful and therefore dangerous Jewish king might be.  But he is tricked by the Magi.  They don’t come back to tell him of the child.

In desperate fury Herod kills all the boys two and under in Bethlehem.  The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jeremiah: a sound is heard…Rachel weeping for her children.  Rachel, is the beloved wife of Jacob, who was the ancestor of the Jews and uneasy brother of Esau, ancestor of Herod.  Rachel – who Jacob in his mourning buried in Bethlehem.  Rachel - another in the female line of ancestry – the daughters of Eve.   Rachel is grieving the death of innocence – the little children.

And so we might see in the older figure in Carrvagio’s painting – as the matriarch Rachel – mourning for all that goes wrong in life – the death of the dream of innocence and paradise.   And what could be more wrong than the love of a mother, the hope and dreams, the possibilities invested in the life of her child, snuffed out by its murder.  So much in life goes wrong.   Life everywhere is touched everywhere by the serpent.

Caravaggio knew about jealousy, rage, violence, murder - he knew about the serpent. From his youth   He was a delinquent, a drunkard, a rebel. He was frequently in brawls and fights and often started them.  He committed two murders in the heat of the moment, one over the outcome of a tennis match (I can understand that!).  He stabbed someone for making uncomplimentary remarks about a painting.  He died at the age of 39, an exile and sick.   Perhaps in his thirtieth year he is painting with the hope the serpent’s head that bites his heel will be crushed.
And perhaps as he makes his painting from the people around him, just as he sees them and knows them, he shares this hope with all us.  

I like this painting because it’s not what you expect.   And when you strip back the tradition and the annual expectation from the event, neither is Christmas what you would expect.  So the painting shocks, as the reality of Christmas must – not just the peace on earth goodwill toward men, gifts, and love came down at Christmas side of things, but the shocking (though not surprising) reaction against this heavenly intrusion, the slaughter of innocents, in keeping with the long ago death of innocence.

And then on the other hand this painting reminds me that divine things happen in real human life.   That Mary was a real person, a mother, perhaps like Carravaggio’s mother.  Perhaps like your mother or my mother, perhaps like the mother of my children, or your children.  That Jesus had family in the same line of descent that you and I are in.  And that the divine was held in the care of that family. 

And it reminds me of the human hope that the consequences of the knowledge of good and evil that bite us all might be dealt with.  

That life might cross death however it has marred and scarred and worn me down. 

That life might cross death to touch us all.