Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Andrew (visible at the bottom of this page) is a curious painting. As with so many of Caravaggio’s works, there are paradoxes which estrange and entice us as viewers. There is light and darkness, beauty and ugliness, life and death, drama and stillness, comprehension and confusion.

The subject matter is obscured. On first impression, the painting appears to resemble a typical crucifixion scene, in which a humble man is condemned to die for his faith before a crowd and in imitation of Christ. However, our expectations are confounded once we discover that it is the crucified Saint who has had his wishes fulfilled, and in defiance to the operation of state law. 

Most poignantly of all, there is an exchange of life and fortune granted to a figure we would perhaps not expect to see at this crucifixion scene; an old migrant woman suffering from social and economic inequality. Indeed, a closer engagement with this painting, along with a parallel reading of social cohesion policy, will reveal how the Crucifixion is a proclaimed right for the social justice of the marginalized and a denigration of oppressive authoritarian power.

The Nobility of the Poor

Saint Andrew was a fisherman and disciple of Jesus. According to the apocryphal legend, the Proconsul of Patra, upset that his wife had been baptized by Saint Andrew, ordered that the apostle be bound to a cross. For two days, the Saint continued to preach from the cross to enormous crowds. On witnessing the threat of an uprising, the Proconsul commands that Andrew be released. However, in the painting an executioner is subject to sudden paralysis after trying to undo the knots of the bound saint, who desires to die as a martyr.

Caravaggio skilfully uses two witnesses to the miracle to include us in this scene, also drawing our attention to another two striking antitheses; between rich and poor, disbelief and comprehension. The well-to-do soldier in contemporary dress with his back to the viewer is the Proconsul. When I look at him I am reminded of the richly dressed donor portraits that were sometimes inserted into medieval crucifixion scenes in order to express their pious devotion. Yet again, Caravaggio plays with our expectations. The Proconsul projects his bent arm from the picture plane, a gesture which demonstrates control, administrative organisation and power that in fact turns out to be an illusion.

The old woman is the only witness who is fully lit and facing the viewer. She is also directly opposed, literally and metaphorically, to the group of men on the Saint’s left. She is the only one to respond to the miracle occurring above with an expression of profound understanding. Together with the divine light that bathes her in compassion and unites her with the Saint’s suffering, Caravaggio lends her a dignity and nobility that far surpasses that of the Proconsul. Yet the very materiality of her body inscribes her as a migrant to the city of Naples, linking her to the Neapolitan streets and market spaces.

It is fascinating how Caravaggio privileges the woman’s understanding above all else. It is her knowledge and devotion that unlocks the full significance of the event, bringing sacred meaning to us. Indeed, it is her vision that is the starting point for community healing and prosperity. The artist specifically chose to alter the original positioning of the woman’s hands, drawing attention to her deformity. Her goitre was a common ailment among the poor in the mountainous regions near Naples, aligning her with a group of vagrants criminalised in early modern European legislature. Yet Caravaggio ensures that what she lacks in social authority, she gains in divine authority which strips apart temporal ambition, order and law.

Punishment Derided, Compassion Embraced

In the context of early modern Naples, financial turmoil through heavy taxation, revolt and repression exacerbated tensions and discrepancies between the aristocracy and poor. One response to social unrest was the visible drama of punishment, or the punished body, used by the higher echelons of society to bring into submission a crowd prone to revolt. In the display of Andrew’s crucified body, it is this context that Caravaggio’s painting references. However, the Crucifixion is about the enactment of punishment gone wrong, in which Andrew’s body is a sign of crisis and a site of knotted human relations.

Caravaggio presents us with a narrative of hope over despair, divine justice over oppression. It is remarkable that in the commission of Caravaggio’s Crucifixion by a Spanish viceroy, the Spanish royal family were aligned with the ordinary Neapolitan people who sought the protection of the Saint. This indirectly positioned them against the Italian nobility, who were known for their baronial abuses against the peasantry.

In the painting, punitive measures were not the means to rectify disorder and re-establish the wholeness of the social body. The role of the executioner is to implement the wishes of the state official, but his paralysis questions the efficacy of the law and its operation. Andrew’s body should be bound to the operation of the law, but instead it conveys other possibilities for organising the community through compassion and understanding.

How Might EU Policy Benefit?

Caravaggio’s painting is a study of how structures of injustice become entrenched and how they can be subverted. The old woman is made an exemplar, or symbol, in her faithful fight against the oppressive structures of state law. Any barriers are eliminated between her and the healing benefits of grace. Her compassion and understanding of the Saint’s plight is a model for emulation which becomes socially meaningful. As Caravaggio’s painting demonstrates, compassionate measures are essential if marginalized groups are to be a model for society.

In regard to EU policy, the most appropriate types of integrated measures for their cohesion must be developed and implemented in close connection with the communities in sight. A recent report by the European Commission (2017) shows that increasing inequality, the risk of poverty and social exclusion remain as main challenges for European countries, drawing attention to regional disparities. 

Disadvantaged communities may believe the system will never be favourable and active involvement is a challenge. Most of these groups cannot effectively influence decisions taken at a political and administrative level so the most important changes to their condition depends on an action coming from outside, for example through donations, but these interventions tend to be unsustainable. A fuller, compassionate understanding of diversity is the key to realizing its gains, especially to economic development, and it is the only means by which the EU can expand its policy options to appreciate this diversity as well as tailor policy to specific regions.

Marginalized communities, both past and present, also have the right to political participation at the local level, the right to health, and the right to social justice. In today’s world, the efforts of persons with disabilities to be included in their societies as full members with equal standing exemplify such struggles. It is minorities – women, children, refugees, migrants, homeless, and indigenous people with disabilities – who are disproportionally affected by disparities, marginalization, and poverty because they face double or even triple discrimination. 

For urban-dwelling disabled peoples, cities are sites “of many contradictions: comforts and constraints, opportunities and oppressions”. Cities can therefore be “disabling”—creating environments that restrict, ignore, and exclude persons with disabilities from everyday economic, political, cultural and social activities. Barriers to participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities can actively limit governance and hinder economic growth. Most importantly, it is considered a human rights violation. 

In today’s world, multiple international documents deal with human rights in the city, the most influential including the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City. At the core of these documents are the principles of human dignity, non-discrimination, sustainability, democracy, and social justice. These rights are often seen as aspirational in the international realm but are crucial to address some of the deep-rooted social issues in cities, such as socio-economic inequality, poverty, and marginalization. Therefore, rights in the city must be understood less as legalistic rights or entitlements, and more as a plan for action in which policies promote openness to new ideas, knowledge and diverse characteristics and fosters trust. 

In Caravaggio’s painting, the old woman’s view is the only one that includes everything that brings the scene into being and she is, through her understanding, the starting point of the narrative. She demonstrates that change today must be initiated from below and any measures for successful integration must be implemented in close connection with marginalized groups and in a way in which diversity is brought to the forefront as a source for growth and prosperity.

In the painting, divine intervention defies the hard-line measures of state authority, and the woman responds to this act of grace with faith and understanding. Today’s authorities would do well to heed this example if the fruits of true justice are ever to yield.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Andrew, 1607, oil on canvas, The Cleveland Museum of Art, America.