The Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri) is one of the most famous mature religious works of Caravaggio, painted in 1605-1606.
The artwork was executed for the altar of the Archconfraternity of the Papal Grooms (Arciconfraternita di Sant’Anna de Parafrenieri) in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Moreover, it was exhibited for some time in the parish church for the Vatican, Sant’Anna dei Palafrenieri, before its removal, most probably because of its orthodox portrayal of the Virgin.
After, Cardinal Scipione Borghese bought it and the artwork still hangs in the Galleria Borghese among other five Caravaggio’s paintings: Boy with a Basket of Fruit, David with the head of Goliath, Young Sick Bacchus, Saint Jerome Writing, and St John the Baptist in the Desert. The vicissitudes of the painting are documented from the receipt for payment to the artist on 8 April 1606, which indicates that the painting was finished by this date. However, the reason for the refusal of the Congregazione della Fabbrica to accept the painting is not clear yet. One of the assumptions is that the painting was considered to lack the decorum considered to be indispensable for its display in a place that was both public and holy.
The painting’s size is 292 x 211 cm; it was commissioned by the confraternity of the Palafrenieri. The artist presented a theological concept of great importance in extremely humanized terms, depicting the figure of St. Anne, the personification of divine grace, as passive detachment. For the Virgin, Caravaggio used the same model as the one who had posed for the Madonna di Loreto (or dei Pellegrini), in the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome.
Undoubtedly, it is an atypical depiction of the Virgin for its time, and probably have been shocking to some contemporary viewers. The Virgin, with the help of her son, whom she holds, tramples a snake, a symbol of evil or original sin. Saint Anne, whose painting is meant to be honored, is an old, wrinkled grandmother, who witnesses this event. Shaky halos crown the rack; snake bounces off halo. Mary and Jesus barefoot; Jesus is a completely naked, uncircumcised child. Everything else is basically a shadow, and the figures become monumental in the light.
If this picture was intended in honor of the grandmother of Christ, it is unclear how the ungrateful image of her wrinkled appearance in this painting would be perceived as reverent or iconic. According to Bellory, further shock should have come from the revealing bodice of the Virgin Mary. It can be assumed that the parallel diagonals of the phallus and the feet of Jesus suggest that both are fighting with the snake, and one of them is metaphorically equal.
The recent conservation work has revealed the use of incision on the canvas, a feature of Caravaggio’s working methods. Originally, the Virgin’s halo was at the same level that of Saint Anne, the patron of the confraternity of the Palafrenieri, who is watching the scene. Moreover, the cleaning influenced the brightness of the colours in the arteork, particularly, on the snake’s body, where there are reflections of the light, and in the beam of light from above.