The beautiful painting “Madonna dei Pellegrini” (The Virgin of the Pilgrims) was commissioned to Caravaggio by Ermete Cavalletti when he, in 1603, acquired the first chapel in the left aisle of St. Augustin’s church, which he dedicated to the Loreto’s Virgin.
A pious tradition relates how in May 1291 the house, in which the Virgin got the annunciation of the miraculous conception and Jesus’ infancy took place, was moved by angels from Nazareth in Palestina first to Fiume (present day Croatia), then to three different sites in the eastern Italian region of Marche to definetly settle on a site between Recanati and the sea, they started naming Loreto (due to the many laurel trees in the surrounding area), on December 10 1094.
Instead of showing the astonishing fact of the flying house being transported by angels as most of the painted representations of this miracle do, Caravaggio’s interest focuses on the pilgrims’ relationship to this peculiar Virgin, that he presents as the embodiment of the pilgrimage itself.
On either sides of a threshold a beautiful mother leaning on the door’s frame holds in her arms a joyous, healthy looking baby, they both are the very image of the serene calm of the confidence given by the faith.
Their health and beauty contrasts with the pilgrims’ evident age and weariness inevitable in a life conditioned by the time, but at the same time it seems as if in this vision the two tired pigrims, also son and mother? are finding, as in a special mirror, the best part of themselves.
The pilgrims belong to our space while this strange threshold set slanting to the picture’s surface reminds us the open lid of the sarcophagus of the resurrected Jesus, and also that Jesus is the cornerstone on which to build the new life.
Jesus who abandoned his home and family, who affirmed that those who’d followed his example would have been his family, Jesus is the image of the true pilgrim we should resemble.
According to St.Paul’s interpretation of what being a Jesus’ follower means (as one can understand reading the way in which he introduces himself in the first Letter to the Corinthians), the Christian is the one who’s ready to abandon every possession, even one’s own name (as St.Paul did) to follow Jesus, meaning that we must be ready to set off, to be open to the radical change true love require us to undertake.
The pilgrim/Christian has no home, no fatherland, is in a permanent state of search, and confident that God’s mercy will help him finding everything he needs, as well as the right inner disposition, necessary to understand other people’s language and habits in order to live with them.
And like the pilgrims represented in this painting, the Christian will enter the relationship from a lower standpoint, not as a Lord but as the one asking for help.
In this way we might get to the threshold of light, to the fullness of a glowing looking mother and to the wealth of promises a well fed, happy child communicates.
Thus, once again, Caravaggio invented an iconography corresponding to a less conventional faith and able to speak to everyone.