In 1605, Laerzio Cherubini commissioned Caravaggio to paint an altarpiece for his family’s chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome. The chapel was dedicated to the Transit of the Virgin. There was a particular decorum for the depiction of such a scene: the Virgin giving a pious gesture, some sort of ascension of her soul, and clouds of angels. Caravaggio disregarded all of these rules and painted a bloated, inappropriately adorned Mary as if she was an ordinary mortal. For these reasons, the Carmelite clergy of the church rejected it.
Caravaggio’s dead Virgin offended its viewers. She appeared very dead, bloated, there was nothing miraculous about her. She has no energy whatsoever to raise a hand in gesture. Her bare feet and ankles are uncovered. She is in a very poor setting. Caravaggio shows a very human Mary, the poor mother of Christ. The Mary painted by Caravaggio looked very much like one of his lovers, the prostitute Lena. It has probably distracted contemporary viewers of this painting from understanding the real meaning behind the naturalism (Lena had drowned in a river, so Caravaggio was able to use her dead body as a model). But it was merely characteristic of Caravaggio to paint from life and to paint incredibly naturalistic figures and situations.
The lack of divinity presented in this composition is also a reason the original patrons rejected it. This appears to be an ordinary earthly death. The distinct emotions on every figure’s face add a dynamic quality to the grief portrayed. However moving it is, this can be any woman’s death.
“Life's tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”