Caravaggio's "Martyrdom of St. Ursula" and the Death of a Baroque Master

Martyrdom of St. Ursula (1610) by CaravaggioMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

The Commission 

Marcantonio Doria, a wealthy twenty five year old merchant from Genoa, commissioned Caravaggio to paint this picture in 1610. Doria commissioned the work to commemorate his step daughter's entry into a religious order, taking the name Ursula. Lanfranco Massa, who was Doria's agent in Naples, reports that the painting was completed by 11 May, 1610.  The picture was shipped from Naples to Genoa when the paint and varnish were still wet. Caravaggio's painting arrived in Genoa on 18 June, 1610, exactly one month before the master's death on 18 July, 1610.  Let us consider more closely the picture's subject matter and iconography.

St. Ursula

According to Tradition, St. Ursula was an early Christian virgin-martyr who died in 383 AD. Daughter of King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west Britain, Ursula set out on a pilgrimage with 11,000 virgin-handmaidens to Rome. Ursula and her handmaidens were seized in Cologne by the Huns, who were besieging the city. Refusing to marry the barbarian leader of the Huns, he shot Ursula with a bow and arrow and beheaded all the handmaidens. The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne holds the purported relics of Ursula and her 11,000 maidens. Now, let us take a closer look at the action unfolding before us. 

To our right is the ashen St. Ursula, with her flowing crimson robe, who is seized by her captors, the Huns.

She has just been shot by an arrow that has pierced her breast. She gazes down with preternatural poise.

Her countenance displays little emotion. With a slightly furrowed brow, her gaze is one of resigned contemplation.

The faint arrow plunging into her breast causes controlled spurts of blood to emerge, as her hands cup the wound.

Follow the arrow to our left. In a bravo handling of brushwork, Caravaggio simply allows the shaft of the arrow to disappear.

The assassin peers at his victim with a slightly stunned look on his face.

The Hun's right hand has just loosed the arrow that strikes St. Ursula.

The distance between the Hun's left hand holding the bow and Ursula's breast is minimal. He took the shot at point-blank range.

Watching the action unfold from the top right corner of the canvas is a self-portrait of the artist, Caravaggio, underscoring the immediacy of the event and perhaps also associating himself with the antagonists.

The Death of Caravaggio

Caravaggio arrived to Naples for a second time from Sicily in September or October 1609. The "Martyrdom of St. Ursula" is likely the last painting ever executed by Caravaggio. The artist departed by boat from Naples in July of 1610, seeking a pardon from Pope Paul V for the murder he had committed in 1606 that precipitated his flight from Rome to Naples in the same year. But the artist never made it to Rome. He died tragically in Porto Ercole, some 40 km from the Eternal City, on 18 July, 1610 - exactly one month after this painting arrived to its destination in Genoa. 

Like St. Ursula, Caravaggio's life was tragically cut short.

Credits: Story

Curated by James P. Anno

The "Martyrdom of St. Ursula" is the property of Intesa Sanpaolo, Le Gallerie d'Italia, Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples.

Credits: All media
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