Caravaggio: Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

Much like Bruegel, Caravaggio was an artist that I took a while to warm to given the level of genius accorded him. Then I read John Berger on Caravaggio; I learned more about the innovations that began with Caravaggio. In tandem with this, I learned about his short life, dotted with public brawls, murder, and a Kanye-level of swagger (I have questions about how Caravaggio’s post-bows speech on SNL would have played out).

So when the Metropolitan Museum of Art had Caravaggio’s last painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, on temporary loan last summer, I went. Saint Ursula has a similar story that, over the centuries, morphed into legend: She arrives in Cologne around the 4th Century with 11,000 virgins in tow to offset the Hun army's march on Rome. The Huns agree, provided she marries their general. Ursula, being chaste, refuses and so the General does the most logical thing: He shoots her dead with an arrow and has all 11,000 members of her entourage beheaded.

Caravaggio,  The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

Caravaggio’s earlier works are rich, ornate, Baroque, but here he depicts the moment of Ursula coming into contact with the arrow starkly, almost minimalistically. A flash of red from the General to Ursula cuts across an otherwise dark background, and Ursula’s face looks ashen, almost as if she is already departed — or that she never truly was of this world. There’s a sense of violence, as well as oppression and the oily hand of fate. Some scholars believe that Caravaggio, perhaps aware that he, too, was not long for the world, was in some way expressing his own guilt through the painting.

But look again at Ursula’s expression. She’s not visibly pained; she’s not angered or betrayed or even distraught. She’s discovering the soft opening of compassion. This isn’t to say that she’s all-forgiving: Compassion here is an open wound, bringing in the sum totality of experience. This is also how compassion takes place. Compassion, after all, comes from the old Latin, “to suffer with.”  

Perhaps in his own way, this is what Caravaggio was looking for in this final work, a work of atonement (the figure peering just to the right of Ursula is said to be Caravaggio’s own self portrait), but one that trades self-flagellation for the open wound of compassion.

Today’s Contemplation

Think about the last time you did something that you really, truly regretted. Perhaps it wasn’t murder (or beheading 11,000 virgins), but perhaps it was saying something — deliberately or inadvertently — that hurt someone. Maybe it was grabbing someone else’s cab, shoving into a preferable spot on the subway, or letting down a colleague. In calling this moment to mind, can you consider it, not from a place of self-flagellation, but from a place of compassion? Can you feel a sense of forgiveness for yourself? If it feels honest, try placing your hands around your heart center, similar to where Ursula holds the arrow that pierces her. Can you access your sense of self-compassion there?