Crushing the Serpent
A Rejected Masterpiece
Commentary by Antonio Mazzotta
In a dark room, three figures are lit from the left by a strong shaft of light. The Virgin is holding the baby Jesus, whose left foot is on top of hers, while both are crushing the head of a snake. On the right, an astonished St Anne is observing the scene.
This altarpiece was commissioned from Caravaggio on 1 December 1605 by the Confraternity of the Palafrenieri (stable-servants) for their altar dedicated to St Anne in St Peter’s in Rome. The painting was brought to St Peter’s on 16 April 1606, and the painter was paid on 19 May. It left St Peter’s almost immediately, perhaps because of its controversial iconography, but also on account of Caravaggio’s personal vicissitudes: on 16 June its sale to Cardinal Scipione Borghese was approved, just a couple of weeks after Caravaggio had murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni (28 May).
The altarpiece is an extremely rare interpretation of the theme of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine according to which the Virgin is untouched by Original Sin. This particular iconography has only one precedent: Ambrogio Figino’s altarpiece, today in Sant’Antonio Abate, Milan.
It has been observed that it is a sophisticated interpretation of Genesis 3:14–15, and in particular of verse 15’s reference to the crushed serpent. During the sixteenth century, the phrase in question was read in different ways by Catholics and Lutherans. The Latin version of the Bible used by Roman Catholics (the Vulgate) translated the verse as ‘she will crush your head’ (ipsa conteret capum tuum). The Lutherans translated it ‘he will crush your head’ (ipse conteret capum tuum). The former translation suggested Mary’s triumph over sin, and therefore refers to the Immaculate Conception. The latter suggested Christ’s.
Caravaggio—like Figino—chose a compromise between the two interpretations, with both feet crushing the serpent. It was too much for Counter-Reformation Rome.
Pierguidi, S. 2009. ‘Nascita e diffusione di una rara iconografia dell’Immacolata Concezione: da Figino e Caravaggio a Bourdon e Quellinus II’, Arte Lombarda, 157.3: 39–48
Settis, S. 1975. ‘Immagini della meditazione, dell’incertezza e del pentimento nell’arte antica’, Prospettiva, 2: 4–18
For His Own Devotion
Commentary by Antonio Mazzotta
A dead Christ lies on the lap of the Virgin, who struggles to hold his dead weight. While his limp right arm hangs down to the floor, his lifeless right foot nevertheless crushes a female-headed snake.
Lorenzo di Pietro, known as il Vecchietta, carved this extraordinary Pietà from a single piece of walnut wood. The Sienese sculptor and painter here interpreted—in a very personal manner—the Northern European iconography of the Vesperbild (literally ‘Vespers image’ in German, on account of its use in the evening service on Good Friday), which spread through the Italian peninsula from the end of the fourteenth century and gained wide currency in Italian art during the fifteenth century, culminating with Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà (1497–99).
The wooden sculpture was rediscovered only in the 1980s in the church of San Donato in Siena, even though it was already described there by Fabio Chigi in 1625–26. Chigi reported an inscription—now lost—that accompanied the sculpture: hoc opus fecit Laurentius dictus Vecchietto pro sua devotione. The latter formula indicated that the artist executed it ‘for his own devotion’. It was a phrase that Vecchietta employed for at least one other sculpture and painting, both destined for his funerary chapel in the church of the Annunziata in the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
The snake in Vecchietta’s Pietà alludes to the redemption of humanity from Original Sin through Christ’s sacrifice. In this sense, it relates to Genesis 3:15, as it represents the passage ‘he will bruise your head’ (ipse conteret capum tuum). The perpetual physical threat from human heels to the reptile which crawls on its belly suddenly takes on a new meaning here. For the power of evil which the serpent embodies will be spiritually crushed, once and for all, by the second Adam.
Bagnoli, A. 1987. Scultura dipinta. Maestri di legname e pittori a Siena 1250–1450 (Florence: Centro Di), pp. 177–80
Seidel, M. et al. 2010. Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello. Le arti a Siena nel primo Rinascimento (Milan: F. Motta), pp. 312–13
A Protestant Interpretation
Commentary by Antonio Mazzotta
A monumental Virgin is supporting the Christ child, who tramples a snake with his left foot. On the right, an elderly woman holding a book reclines at the bottom of a column.
Sébastien Bourdon, a French painter of Protestant faith, was in Rome between 1634 and 1637, and there almost certainly saw Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Serpent. Once in Paris, he executed this print, in which there are substantial departures from Caravaggio’s model. First of all, it is the child alone who crushes the snake, while the Virgin merely observes. This is perfectly in line with the Lutheran way of interpreting Genesis 3:15: ‘he will crush your head’ (ipse conteret capum tuum).
Another typically Lutheran aspect is that the figure on the right no longer represents St Anne, as most Protestant traditions do not acknowledge Anne as a saint. She has been replaced by the figure of what seems to be a prophet, holding a book. (Indeed, it has often been argued that an extra-biblical Anne has been exchanged for a biblical one, and that this is the female prophet Anna described in Luke 2:22–38). A representation of the Immaculate Conception—one of the pillars of the Counter-Reformation—is here transformed into an image against the cult of the Virgin.
Sébastien Bourdon probably perceived all the discussions and controversies that surrounded Caravaggio’s altarpiece, and decided to offer an interpretation which is compositionally similar yet powerfully different in meaning.
Thuillier, J. 2000. Sébastien Bourdon 1616–1671: catalogue critique et chronologique de l’oeuvre complet (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux), p. 259
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :
Madonna and Child with St Anne (Dei Palafrenieri), 1605–06 , Oil on canvas
Pietà (Lamentation), c.1448 , Polychrome walnut wood
Sébastien Bourdon :
The Holy Family with the Christ Child Crushing the Serpent with His Feet, c.1643–71 , Etching on paper
Redeeming Original Sin
Commentary by Antonio Mazzotta
The serpent is the central character of Genesis 3:14–15, and is the common denominator of the three very different works of art that are examined here: a wooden sculpture from early-Renaissance Siena; a controversial painting by Caravaggio; and a French seventeenth-century print.
This passage in the Old Testament was interpreted by Christians in very different ways due to a single letter: an ‘a’ against an ‘e’. In fact, throughout the centuries it was read either as ‘she will crush your head’ (ipsa conteret capum tuum)—and therefore as referring to the Virgin—or as ‘he will crush your head’ (ipse conteret capum tuum)—and so as referring to Jesus Christ. Especially in the sixteenth century, this different way of reading it became one of the main subjects of discussion between Roman Catholics (who supported the version they considered to refer to the Virgin) and Lutherans (who maintained that the biblical passage intended Christ).
In both interpretations, the passage represents an action that symbolizes the redemption of mankind from Original Sin.
Vecchietta’s Pietà clearly shows that this redemption—and therefore the crushing of the serpent, who played a crucial role in causing Adam and Eve to fall—was possible thanks to the sacrifice of Christ which ‘takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Caravaggio’s altarpiece combines the two interpretations of the passage, clearly finding a compromise by emphasizing the roles of both the Virgin and Christ in the work of redemption. This is partly a consequence of the conciliatory precepts of Pope Pius V’s bull on the institution of the Rosary (1571): ‘The Virgin crushed the head of the Serpent with the help of the Son’.
Sébastien Bourdon brings the Son to the centre of the action, attributing primarily to him the merits that achieve redemption. This is a typically Protestant approach to the passage, while in the Catholic world from the seventeenth century onwards the Virgin was increasingly the main focus of the image, to the extent that the Virgin crushing the snake became the official iconography of the Catholic Church's doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (see, for instance, Peter Paul Rubens’s and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conceptions today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Despite their differences, all three works refer to the sacrifice of Christ. While in the Pietà this is made clear by the subject—the Virgin mourning the dead body of her son—there are more subtle references in the other two works. In Caravaggio’s painting, the position of the right hand of the Virgin means that her index and middle fingers describe the site of the future wound in Christ’s side. As often happens with representations of the childhood of Christ, we are offered a prefiguration of the Passion. In Bourdon’s print, the Virgin stretches out the arms of Christ, apparently to keep him balanced while crushing the snake. This too, however, can be seen as a subtle reference to the Crucifixion.
Reading the Old Testament text in a christological way, all three works of art thus bear the message that the redemption of mankind from Original Sin has occurred through the Incarnation and the sacrifice of Christ.