Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary

Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary

James from Amor Sciendi and I collaborated on his latest video, “The Madonna of the Rosary and the Counter Reformation.” You can watch the video below and read the article for more information. Please visit the Amor Sciendi YouTube channel for more informative videos that use art to teach!

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio (1621)

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio (1621)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 Milan – 1610 Porto Ercole) was an Italian Baroque painter born in or near Milan. As a youth, he trained under Simone Peterzano in Milan before moving to Rome in 1592. He soon gained the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who was one of Caravaggio’s most powerful patrons. Caravaggio quickly became one of Rome’s most sought-after artists.  Aside from his art, he was known for his fiery personality and penchant for brawling. He was arrested several times in Rome, and in 1606, he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni.1 The pope issued a death sentence for Caravaggio, who promptly fled for the Italian south, where he enjoyed great acclaim.2 He died in 1610 while on his way back to Rome to secure a papal pardon, which he received posthumously.

The Rosary in the 16th & 17th centuries
The rosary as an object, simply defined as a string with beads, is not unique to Catholicism and is an ancient prayer technique.3 Legend has it that, during a vision, the beads were given to Saint Dominic (d. 1221, founder of the Dominican Order) by the Virgin Mary.4 This gift led to the rosary being used in the “Christian [Catholic]” sense. Each bead of the rosary represents one of fifteen mysteries in the life of Christ or the Virgin Mary. It was “a form of meditative prayer, a way of deepening faith through pondering the vivid reality of the Gospel.”5 The rosary began to gain popularity in Italy in the sixteenth century. Italy was engaged in an ideological, physical, and artistic battle against Protestantism while also battling threats from the Turks. The Catholic Church began the difficult work of internal reform while under immense pressure from outside forces. In an attempt to consolidate its position against Protestantism while maintain its socio-political control over the Catholic population, the Church convened the Council of Trent in a series of sessions between 1545 and 1563. Trent led to an immense shift in 16th and 17th century art-making and religious experience.

For Church reformers, the rosary was seen as a way to homogenize religious doctrine within the masses. Confraternities dedicated to the rosary began to spring up across Italy. Although these groups did not enforce one single method of praying the rosary among their members, they did generally require that their members pray for the living as well as the dead.6 The rosary was a democratic, all-inclusive devotion7 which offered worshippers a way to encounter the divine and contemplate the “vivid reality of the Gospel.”8

In 1548, Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (written 1522-24) was printed in Rome. The Exercises’ emphasis on imaginative meditation increased the popularity of the rosary.9 As Nathan D. Mitchell argues throughout his book The Mystery of the Rosary, the techniques used in the Exercises were also used when praying – or, now, meditation on – the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, which are:

  • Joyful Mysteries: 1) The Annunciation, 2) The Visitation, 3) The Nativity, 4) Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 5) Finding Jesus at the Temple
  • Sorrowful Mysteries: 1) The Agony in the Garden, 2) The Scouring at the Pillar, 3) The Crowning with Thorns and Mocking of Christ, 4) Jesus Carrying the Cross, 5) The Crucifixion
  • Glorious Mysteries: 1) Resurrection, 2) Jesus’ Ascension, 3) Pentecost (gift of the Holy Ghost), 4) Assumption of the Virgin, 5) Coronation of Mary by Jesus

In 1571, a miraculous event occurred which refreshed Mary’s connection to the rosary. During the Battle of Lepanto, the Church was fighting the Ottoman navy. Back in Rome, the local rosary confraternity had gathered in Santa Maria sopra Minerva to pray for victory. The Church was victorious, and Pope Pius V  attributed the victory to the Virgin, who, not only the gentle Mother of Christ, but now also the militant protector of the Church.10 In 1573, to commemorate the Lepanto victory, Pope Gregory VIII instituted the Feast of the Rosary and entrusted its observance to the Dominicans.

Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary (1605-7), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Caravaggio, Madonna of the Rosary (1607)

Caravaggio, Madonna of the Rosary (1607)

Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, like many of his works, differs from convention. The first thing I notice whenever I look at this painting is the central placement of poor men’s dirty feet. Equally striking are the sheer number of hands that reach up, almost desperately, for one of the rosaries Saint Dominic holds. Framed by a red curtain, the Madonna and Child sit enthroned above the crowd. Mary gestures to Saint Dominic and the adorable, chubby Christ Child looks toward Dominican friar Saint Peter Martyr, whose bleeding head recalls his violent death (he was hit in the head with an axe by assassins).11 A hooded Dominican friar stands next to him. Below the Madonna and Child are several of the faithful poor, who, with dirty feet and desperate gestures, reach up for the rosaries. To their left, a wealthy, kneeling man (possibly a member of the powerful Colonna family, Caravaggio’s protectors)12 looks out to the viewer while his hands lift up Dominic’s outer robe, invoking Dominic’s protection.13

This painting differs drastically from others of its iconography in that it lacks the celebratory, victorious quality that so many post-Lepanto works displayed.14 Instead, Caravaggio’s painting is a humble one that gives precedence to the rosary as a great unifier and gateway to the divine. Rosary confraternities brought together both rich and poor; the rosary itself was not (and is not) an elite practice. (However, the rosary as a material object itself could be a symbol of wealth based upon its materials – and perhaps, too, the language used to pray the rosary, though praying in the Vernacular versus Latin was neither bad nor good.15) Like confraternities, The Madonna of the Rosary brings together people from all walks of life. Recent research suggests that the painting may have been created for the elite Neapolitan church of San Domenico.16 If so, the painting would have legitimized the legend that the Madonna gifted the Rosary to Dominic.17 The painting’s location in this church may have also been provocative, as San Domenico was “an aristocratic church, in the city’s ancient centre, its sacristy lined with royal tombs, and frequented by a cultural elite.”18 If installed, the wealthy congregation would have been  met with the reality of the rosary as Caravaggio saw it: undiscriminating, the rosary offers a meeting of worlds to all who pray it.

Interestingly, in the Madonna of the Rosary, only the poor figures and the rich man to the left are wearing common contemporary garb. The saints seem to be wearing their traditional clothing, and the Madonna and Child are set apart by their clothing as well (though this is not a unique feature of the Madonna and Child). Howard Hibbard notes that traditionally, Mary would hand the rosary to Dominic; in Caravaggio’s painting, it is only Dominic and Saint Peter Martyr who seem to be aware of Mary.19 I would argue that through this, Caravaggio intentionally leads the viewer to question the painting: what or who is real? What or who is envisioned? What or who has been ushered in by the praying of the rosary? Any ambiguity present about the viewer’s reality must have been intentional coming from an artist who did not shy away from making paintings so obvious that they shocked. The saints present are each long dead, but they exist alongside the contemporary figures because they exist in or through the company of the faithful; the divine is present in the presence of a community of believers. The 17th century viewer may have looked at this painting while praying the rosary and placed him or herself among the crowd, whose outstretched hands speak to their desire for encounter with the divine. This encounter is available to all who would meditate on the rosary’s mysteries: through the faithful’s prayers, the holy Mother and her Child meet earth.

The Rosary is a medicine to the ill, happiness to the afflicted, strength to the weak, remedy to sinners, pleasure to the just, help to the living, prayer to the dead, and a universal comfort to all the church. She is the royal door, through which we enter, and go to the heart of God… she is the ladder, such as Jacob saw, through whom the earth is joined to the sky, and which angels ascend and descend, taking our prayers to God. – Luis de Granada, Rosario della Sacratissima Vergine Maria (Rome, 1573).20

Further reading:
Anne Winston-Allen, Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (1997); Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (1955); Howard Hibbard, Caravaggio (1983); Helen Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life (1999); Nathan D. Mitchell, The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism (2008).


1 The circumstances behind Tomassoni’s death are heavily debated. Either a fight over a tennis bet, or a fight over a prostitute, or a gang fight between two rival political factions. Some scholars have speculated that Caravaggio attempted to castrate Ranuccio (they maintain Caravaggio mis-aimed and stabbed his rival in the thigh.)
2 Further reading: what a death sentence was like in 17th century Rome:
3Nathan D. Mitchell, The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism (2008), 5, 153, 177.

4 A genre of paintings called the rosenkranzbilder show this legend; with the Madonna and Child in glory presenting Dominic with a wreath of roses (and, later in time, with the rosary). See Mitchell, 23-26.
5 Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life (1999), 333.
6 Mitchell, 7, 35, 46, 100.
7 Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (1955), 202.
8 Langdon, 333.
9 See Mitchell, 18, 33, 79.
10 Mitchell, 22-23.
11 Langdon, 334.
12 Langdon, 333. Langdon points out that the man is in Spanish dress and significantly older than the Colonna family member (Luigi Colonna) the man may be. However, he is placed prominently in front of a colonna – a column. The column thus would be a clever device to identify the patron to contemporary viewers.
13 Howard Hibbard, Caravaggio (1983), 183.
14 See Langdon, 334 and Mitchell, 23-26 on “Rozenkranzbilder”
15 Mitchell, 238.
16  If the painting was made in Naples, it would date to at least October 1606, when Caravaggio arrived in the city under the protection of the powerful Colonna family. It was placed up for sale in Naples in 1607 and went to Amsterdam in 1617.
17 Friedlaender, 202.
18 Langdon, 335; see also Mitchell, 67.
19 Hibbard, 181.
20 Excerpt from page 3 of Rosario della Sacratissima Vergine Maria. Translation from Langdon, 334. Read the original document online here thanks to The Getty!


Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983.
Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999.
Mitchell, Nathan D. The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism. New YorkNew York University Press, 2009.
Winston-Allen, Anne. Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.