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
14The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all cattle,
and above all wild animals;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”