Caravaggio - Madonna dei Palafrenieri

by Helen Bremm


Two women and a toddler can be seen, who are in a dark room that can hardly be made out. Only through a small window not visible at the upper left edge of the picture a soft light falls on the scene. The young woman on the left bends forward holding her infant son with both hands under her arms, as if he were about to slip away from her. His foot is on hers, which in turn is close behind her head on a snake curling on the ground. The older woman watches devoutly, her hands clasped in front of her stomach.

If it weren't for the halos above the women's heads and the mysterious presence of the reptile, this could be an everyday scene from the artist's time. The women are dressed accordingly and the surroundings are discreet and lacking in ostentation.


In fact, the painting is strongly symbolic - the women are Mary Mother of God and her mother Saint Anne, the infant is the baby Jesus. It is not by chance that it stands together with the mother's foot on the deadly serpent. The serpent represents the fall of mankind through Adam and Eve in paradise, who were seduced by a serpent and ate from the tree of knowledge. Mary is considered to be born free of this sin, therefore she crushes the serpent aka sin. Jesus, through his death on the cross, will free people from sin. So the image conveys a biblical message.


The gesture of "stepping on the foot" already exists in medieval book painting and is a symbol of dominance. It is usually found in scenes of Christ's imprisonment, where he is led away but steps on his tormentor's foot as a sign of superiority; Caravaggio picks up this gesture - later rare - again. 


Caravaggio's naturalism depicts the biblical scene in contemporary garb and in a timeless locale. It thus becomes accessible and relevant to everyone. The painting was originally intended for the altar of the chapel of the Order dei Palafrenieri in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. However, it was purchased immediately after completion for the private collection of a cardinal. In the church, it would have served a didactic function for the people who were ignorant of Scripture.


Caravaggio - Madonna dei Palafrenieri

Oil on canvas, 1605, 292 x 211 cm, Galleria Borghese in Rome