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Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo

February 21, 2011












Crucifixion of St. Peter

Caravaggio 1600-1601.

90 ½ x 70” Oil on canvas.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

The simplicity of this composition conveys a great deal of the message to the viewers.  There are merely three other figures besides St. Peter.  Two of the men have their backs to us and the other’s face is in shadow; they are completely anonymous.  Moir describes them as more machine like than human (84).  Caravaggio painted no witnesses to this martyrdom; we are alone with St. Peter as he is hoisted up, upside down on the cross.

St. Peter gazes off the frame, apparently at a crucifix in the church (Moir 84).  He is not engaged with the viewer.  There is nothing we can do but watch this event unfold.

The composition of figures creates a wheel shape.  The movement of this wheel is emphasized by the contrast of action – the men’s strain versus St. Peter’s complaisance.  Soon the movement will lose momentum and it will all be over, St. Peter will be crucified.

This lateral is to the left of Annibale Carracci’s altarpiece (see below).  The downward diagonal points toward the center of the chapel.  Although the composition is clear from photographs we have, this painting can only be seen on an angle because of the small size of the chapel.  Caravaggio no doubt took this into consideration when he decided St. Peter’s position on the cross.  From an angle, he appears to be trying to get up and perhaps jump out of the picture.

St. Peter is the only figure fully illuminated.  The rest of the light in the composition appears to be coming from him.  St. Peter is considered the “rock” on which the Church was built, and so the light symbolically radiates from him (Sgarbi 110).  Vittorio Sgarbi suggests the men lifting St. Peter up are servants, not executioners.  Because they are merely laborers and are in the dark, it shows St. Peter’s power over them, even though he is the one who dies.  The message of this painting is about faith’s triumph, according to Moir (84).

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

Sgarbi, Vittorio.  Caravaggio. Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A. 2007.

Conversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio 1600-1601.

Oil on wood.

Cerasi Chapel, S. Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Caravaggio seemingly ushered in the Baroque with his Conversion of St. Paul in the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo.  He put a new spin on the cast of characters that are usually associated with the subject matter: just Saul, his horse, and a groom (who is oblivious to what is happening, so he does little to directly heighten the drama at hand).

Caravaggio’s idea of the sacred supernatural is radiant light.  In this piece, the light comes from above right.  Its downward direction is further emphasized by the color of the horse’s mane and points to Saul.  This limited amount of subject material creates a different type of drama than that seen in the ZuccariConversion.  Saul’s outstretched hands jut into our space – a device Caravaggio used in many of his religious paintings to engage the worshipper (Wittkower 21).

Although Caravaggio’s early work consisted of excruciatingly naturalistic still life paintings, mostly of or including fruit, his scenes always acted as a memento mori.  Fruit is known to decay over time, and so Caravaggio froze this process and presented it as a reminder of the transience of life.  Caravaggio applied this idea to religious scenes, stressing the climax of the moment.

Wittkower, Rudolf.  Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.










Assumption of the Virgin

Annibale Carracci 1600.

96 x 61” Oil on canvas.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

The altarpiece for the Cerasi Chapel is an Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci.  In addition to its contrasts within the composition, it is a juxtaposition of traditional Renaissance ideals against Caravaggio’s extreme naturalistic laterals.

Inspired by the work of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and others, Annibale Carracci came to Rome from Bologna.  With him, he brought traditional High Renaissance and Classical painting techniques.  In his Assumption, he presents the numerous figures in the classic pyramid shape made famous by Raphael’s countless Madonna and Child paintings.  The composition is very compact, so this triangular grouping is very efficient and economic.  There are more figures than in most typical Renaissance scenes that use pyramidal composition.  Carracci balanced out the chaos caused by so many characters by using diagonal foils.  This stabilizes the pyramid.

Carracci’s Assumption altarpiece appears to be a summary of the Late Renaissance into the Baroque.  He combined Venetian colore with Central Italian disegno using painterly brushstrokes (Wittkower 37).  The figures in this composition are monumental and pressed against the picture plane (Serooskerken).

Although compared to his contemporary, Caravaggio, Carracci may seem to have been behind his times, but it was still very early in the 17th century.  Carracci’s dynamic and vibrant altarpiece provides a colorful juxtaposition to Caravaggio’s less colorful palette.  Likewise, Carracci’s idealized classical figures contrasted the natural humanity of Carvaggio’s figures.  Since this was one of Annibale Carracci’s first pieces in Rome, it served him well to get his name out.

C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken, et al. “Carracci.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 21 Feb. 2011 <;.

Wittkower, Rudolf.  Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.


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