Caravaggio, Santa Maria del Popolo

‘Egregius in urbe pictor’

Caravaggio was moving up in the world. ‘Egregius in urbe pictor’: an outstanding painter in the city. This, the description of Caravaggio in a contract dated 24 September 1600. It stipulated two side paintings for the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo. Tiberio Cerasi, the papal treasurer, had purchased the chapel next to the altar in July, the same month Caravaggio received final payment for his sensational works on the life of St. Matthew at the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi. Each painting was to depict an episode from the life of two apostles closest to Roman hearts: St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and the crucifixion of St. Peter. Both had been martyred in Rome and papal basilicas constructed over their tombs. In addition to this pressure, Santa Maria del Popolo was the first church one saw on entering Rome through Porta Del Popolo at the city’s northern boundary. The theme, location and patron of these works made the task ahead of Caravaggio a formidable one.  

Yet he had every reason to feel confident in his abilities. ‘Egregius in urbe pictor’ – chest-swelling praise in a city where competition between artists was rampant and sometimes violent. It’s estimated that of the 100,000 people residing in Rome at the time, 2,000 were artists. Their ambition, which Caravaggio shared, was to win important commissions from cardinals closest to the pope, or if they were lucky, from the man himself. The reception of Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew and Martyrdom of St. Matthew in the summer of 1600 had done much to further the artist’s hopes in this area. In Tiberio Cerasi, Caravaggio was now presented with the opportunity to climb a step higher on the ladder. But even in this new commission, Rome’s relentless competitive spirit was in evidence. For the altarpiece and ceiling decoration of Cerasi’s chapel were to be undertaken by another highly admired northerner in Annibale Carracci.

Fifteen years older than Caravaggio, Carracci was a daunting rival. Born in Bologna in 1560, he had arrived in Rome in 1595 and, with his brother Agostino and cousin Lodovico, began work on a sprawling ceiling fresco at the Palazzo Farnese. The result, The Loves of the Gods, is a grand pagan romp in a style that blends Michelangelo with Raphael. The Sistine Ceiling is an obvious influence, with the Michelangeloesque contorted bodies, ignudi and classical motifs. Carracci was also clearly inspired by Raphael’s racy frescos from the Villa Farnesina, not just in the elegance of his figures but also in their ribald eroticism. Carracci’s achievement in uniting aspects of the two’s styles, along with the framing of the narrative in distinction from the decorative elements and pervasive use of light, cemented his reputation as a stunning visual artist.

Carracci was obsessed with art and was a voracious draughtsman, supposedly unable to stop drawing even when eating. He took art seriously and instigated informal salons were artists could meet to discuss technique, methods and styles outside of the art guilds. At a distance of 400 years, Carracci appears to us as an admirable figure. He acknowledged his younger rival‘s talent whilst differing wildly from him in style. Carracci’s Pietà (c. 1600) highlights their differences. Christ’s muscular arms, serene features and limp frame are a world away from Caravaggio’s in-your-face realism of dirty-footed saints. Spatially it is wonderfully composed, but the manner in which Christ lies across his mother’s knees feels forced, folded over the Virgin like drapery; this is a man who is supposed to have suffered the most agonising death imaginable. The appeal is emotional and direct, but the portrayal is clean and sanctified.  

Pietà (c.1600), Annibale Carracci, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Though their gulf in style is obvious, Caravaggio and Carracci were united in their desire to break away from the suffocating effects of Mannerism, the term applied to that art which went beyond the measured balances of the High Renaissance by creating elongated and whimsical human forms. Both Caravaggio and Carracci wanted to bring ‘naturalism’, real bodies in real poses, back into the visual arts. For Carracci and his followers, this was by looking to the classical past and coating it in stylish elegance of Raphael. Caravaggio, instead of looking back, aimed to take art in a new direction. Instead of conferring ideal beauty on individuals in his work, he would imbue the common, the everyday, the proletarian, on ideal people – the apostles and saints from the Bible. It isn’t hard to understand why this is was controversial, even reviled. Caravaggio’s detractors could concede his talent but found the degree to which this inversion was pitched intolerable. In his defence, Caravaggio could point to scripture. The apostles and early followers of Christ, he felt, shouldn’t look like Greek heroes and Roman gods but ordinary people. Mary Magdalene, after all, had been a prostitute (so the legend went).

Caravaggio may have felt a natural affinity with Santa Maria del Popolo, an Augustinian church owned by a religious order from his native Lombardy. And the chance to grapple with Carracci must have further kindled his desire to impress. Before applying oil to canvas, Caravaggio would have assessed how the scenes he had to represent had been tackled before. There was one important precedent which couldn’t be ignored: Michelangelo. Despite having been dead for nearly forty years, his sublime frescos and sculptures in the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican remained the pinnacle of Cinquecento art, part of every artist’s mental repertoire. Caravaggio himself had borrowed from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam for Christ’s hand in The Calling of St. Matthew. Now, faced with Cerasi’s chosen themes, he would be forced to look back to the master again. Adorning the walls of the Capella Paolina at the Apostolic Palace were the frescos The Conversion of Saul and Crucifixion of St. Peter, completed by Michelangelo in the 1540s. Both are bleak representations of beleaguered mankind set in empty landscapes. In the Conversion, people cower and flee from Christ’s radiant light; in the Crucifixion, St. Peter scowls threateningly out at the viewer amid huddled witnesses and gruff soldiers.

Crucifixion of St. Peter (1546-1550), Michelangelo, Cappella Paolina, Vatican

As one of Christ’s apostles, St. Peter’s role in the biblical narrative is likely the more familiar. But Paul’s role, first as persecutor, then apostle, epistle writer and martyr, means he did more than any other to shape the early future of the church. Paul (then Saul) was a Hellenized Jew and Roman citizen from Tarsus, southern Turkey. Ultra-zealous in his hatred and persecution of Christians, Paul watches on approvingly as St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1); like some NKVD officer rounding up ‘traitors’, he then ‘made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them into prison’ (Acts 8:3). Later, ‘breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord’ (Acts 9:1), he obtains letters from the high priest to visit Damascus and further his violence against Christians. Having almost reached the city, he is suddenly struck by a light.

And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?

And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. (Acts 9: 4-5)

A blind Paul is then led to Damascus where after three days without sight he is confronted by Ananias, a local whom Jesus commands visit the future saint and restore his sight. Ananias does as he is bid, Paul’s vision is restored and he is baptised into the Christian faith, proclaiming Jesus the Son of God.

It’s the best-known conversion story in Christianity, and the archetypal conversion ever since. Paul’s trouble-strewn apostolic mission took him to the great cities of the Eastern Mediterranean – Corinth, Athens, Thessaloniki, Syracuse and, during the reign of Nero, Rome. As the place of his execution Paul was, like Peter, indelibly connected to Rome. Unlike Paul, Peter had known Christ. As ‘Prince of the Apostles’ – and always referred to first when apostles are listed in the Bible – Peter is present at the defining events of Christ’s life. For the papacy, Christ’s declaration that Peter was ‘the rock’ on which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18) designated him the first pope and founder of the apostolic succession. There is no scriptural account of Peter’s death in Rome, but early Christian texts attest to his martydom in the city during Nero’s reign; his upside-down crucifixion, so as not to emulate the death of Christ, is mentioned by both Origen and Jerome. It was said to have taken place at San Pietro in Montorio, not far from the Vatican, the site of St. Peter’s tomb.

Bramante’s Tempietto (c.1502) at San Pietro in Montorio. Built to commemorate the alleged spot where St. Peter was crucified. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Peter1936F]

Peter and Paul’s roles as early church fathers, and their connection to Rome, meant their depiction in the city helped further the papacy’s spiritual and temporal authority. Staring at his blank canvas, Caravaggio would have been aware of the iconographical tropes of their representation. Paul was usually depicted bearded, partly bald, of slender frame and middle aged, Peter white-haired, bearded, older than Paul and holding the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Michelangelo had given a much older Paul a long white beard in his Conversion of Saul, perhaps in a nod to his elderly patron Paul III, in his Capella Paolina fresco. Caravaggio would have had think carefully about how each was to be portrayed, and whether he would depart or follow Michelangelo’s example before starting his work.

Things didn’t get off to good start. Like his St. Matthew and the Angel altarpiece for San Luigi dei Francesi – the commission for which he received whilst working on the Cerasi Chapel – the original panels Caravaggio completed for Santa Maria del Popolo were never used, having been rejected by Cerasi. Only Paul’s conversion survives. What is most striking about this failed first attempt is its suffocating compression. Several figures are crammed into the narrow frame, where a lot is happening all at once. Christ, supported by an angel, extends his arms to Paul who covers his stricken eyes. A solider in a plumed helmet struggles with a rearing horse whilst pointing his weapon at Christ. There’s even room for an otherworldly landscape wedged in between the action. It’s very busy, and much more overtly dramatic, Paul’s blinding takes place amid a flurry of activity. Though well executed, the sense of drama that it tries to impart falls flat.  

The rejected Conversion of St. Paul (c. 1600)

Starting again, Caravaggio dispensed with the cypress wood on which his first attempts had been made, switching to canvas. Next he made changes to the composition. In the Conversion of St. Paul, he decided to omit Christ and the angel. This decision not only freed up space but also concentrated the focus on Paul (now with a much reduced beard); like in the first attempt, the space is still filled (in fact even more so, as the landscape has disappeared) but it feels less busy. It’s also much slower. Paul, the horse and his assistant are calm and passive, the horse’s foot lazily lifting over the recumbent Paul; gone is the rearing horse, the aggressive soldier and the swooping Christ and angel. The drama of the moment is now internalised, represented in the revere into which Paul has fallen; we no longer see Christ but Paul’s closed eyes and outstretched arms bring the image of Him to mind. We are like Paul in the painting, internalising the image of Christ, Caravaggio’s way of bringing the viewer closer to the historical moment. 

The second and final attempt. Conversion of St Paul (1601), Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Alvesgaspar]

The horse is another standout feature of this second attempt. Understanding why Caravaggio has depicted it in the manner he has helps us comprehend Caravaggio’s intention in this painting. It takes up a large amount of the canvas, its arse decisively placed to the frame closest to Carracci’s altarpiece. The horse is also completely different from the one Caravaggio produced in his first attempt. Remembering the painting’s intended location perhaps reveals why. Santa Maria del Popolo was situated immediately to the left as you entered Rome through the Porta del Popolo. Today, urban sprawl means the city extends far beyond this frontier. In Caravaggio’s day, it was the principle entry point for thousands of pilgrims. Santa Maria del Popolo would be the first church they saw. Overwhelmingly poor, animals were a part of these pilgrims’ everyday lives. In the colder months of the year, they would be brought into the home as a form of free central heating, their body heat helping warm draughty rooms. Caravaggio’s horse is ‘like a hearth, inviting cold bodies to gather round and warm themselves in the act of devotion’[1], a welcome to the pilgrims shuffling into the church.

In his St. Peter panel, Caravaggio shows us the grim task of crucifixion, but again pilgrims would have seen something familiar: three dirty labourers going about their work. Peter is in the process of being hauled up into position, the pit for the cross having been dug by the black-soled figure leaning on his spade as he supports Peter’s weight. Caravaggio has emphasised the physicality of the act through the clasp of the executioner’s hands around the rope and the tensed forearm of the figure holding the cross. The tenebrism of the scene lends emotional depth; enveloping darkness creeps up onto Peter’s left cheek as he approaches the end of his life. He seems barely able to take in what is happening, his mind, like that of Paul in the canvas opposite, removed from the physical reality of the situation. A large rock sits at foot of the painting symbolising St. Peter’s place as head of the church.

An executioner helps raise St. Peter into position. Detail from Crucifixion of St. Peter (1602),

In his Cerasi Chapel canvases, Caravaggio returned to the techniques that had made his Contarelli Chapel St. Matthew cycle a success: the dramatic use of a single light source, a bold distinction between light and dark and a stark juxtaposition between the sublime and the mundane – all whilst infusing his scenes with an unapologetic realism in a contemporary milieu. His canvases for the Cerasi Chapel were far narrower than those he had worked on for the Contarelli Chapel. In response, Caravaggio reduced the number of figures whilst retaining the emotional import by contrasting movement with passivity. In their chapel setting, they are the illumination of a seismic event shrouded in darkness. They feel profoundly personal, as if Caravaggio has raised a lamp and allowed us to catch a glimpse of these portentous events.   

By the time Caravaggio completed the Conversion of Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin was already in situ. In its colourful palette, careful composition and spiritually uplifting message, Carracci’s work is a ‘point-by-point refutation of all Caravaggio’s innovations in the Contarelli Chapel’.[2] Arms aloft, the Virgin ascends into heaven, her eyes fixed on the celestial sphere above. A retinue of figures surround the scene, transfixed and shook by the gravity of the event; Saints Peter and Paul make up the picture’s bottom third, Peter steadying himself, Paul touching his breast, both with their gaze locked heavenwards. It’s an image very much concerned with the next world. We’re not having our noses rubbed into the quotidian reality of everyday existence. Fair enough, one could argue: this is after all the Mother of God entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s an appeal to the emotions, an emblem of balance, poise, refinement and good taste.  

Assumption of the Virgin (1601), Carracci, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo

The Assumption of the Virgin has done Carracci’s posthumous reputation no favours. Visitors to Santa Maria del Popolo today looking up at the three works, and feeling a kinship with Caravaggio as the perceived outsider and underdog, might look with distaste at Carracci’s sickly sweet effort, the attempt of a crowd-pleaser or sycophant cosying up to a cardinal. But Carracci was in his way just as innovative as Caravaggio, and as impatient to disentangle himself from the ‘deadlock of Mannerism’.[3] Disparate as the two may seem in their art and in their lives, they shared a commitment to reshaping art, one by looking forward, the other looking back and both opened up new vistas for artists in the centuries that followed. The end of their lives too has a curious unhappy symmetry. Caravaggio’s intrepid and miserable existence after a succession of bad decisions, culminating in his death at Porto Ercole, is well documented. Carracci’s final years are no less disheartening. He received a paltry and insulting fee for the near-ten years’ graft he had expended on the Farnese ceiling. He barely worked again, fell into a heavy depression and died aged 48.

Carracci is buried in the Pantheon, near Raphael. Caravaggio’s burial place remains unknown.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Frederick Fenyvessy]


[1] Graham-Dixon 2010: 217

[2] Graham-Dixon 2010: 213

[3] Gombrich 2018: 296


Carroll, R and Prickett, S. (eds). 1997. The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. London.

Gombrich, E. H. 2018. The Story of Art. London.

Graham-Dixon, A. 2010. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. London.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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