The five mourners are standing on a flat stone slab (previously thought to be a lid to a tomb), which probably represents the Stone of Unction, where Christ's body was anointed with oil and wrapped in a linen shroud, as described in the Gospel of John.
As usual, Caravaggio tries to capture a precise moment during the action. In this case, he depicts the moment just before the two men lower him into the tomb. In a few seconds he will be gone and the mourners will be on their own.
Some commentators claim that Caravaggio borrowed elements from the Lamentation of Christ (, Uffizi, Florence) by Roger van der Weyden, the Deposition (, Galleria Borghese, Rome) by Raphael, and the Florentine Pietà (, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, Florence) by Michelangelo. However the similarities are unclear and in any case Caravaggio's Entombment is a distinct, independent and (arguably) far superior work.
Compositionally, the painting is based around a diagonal pattern of form and movement, from the hysterical hands of Mary Clopas (top right), down through Mary Magdalene's sagging shoulder, Nicodemus's elbow and Christ's torso, to the end of the white shroud (bottom left).
The fan-shaped pattern - upright Mary Clopas, forward-leaning Mary Magdalene, arched Nicodemus and horizontal Christ - presents us with a cascade of limbs and heads that adds tension and movement to an essentially 'frozen' snapshot in time. Interestingly, the picture becomes quieter as our eye moves from top to bottom.
It is possible to read the picture as an allegory of life and death. At the top we have living people. At the bottom, the tomb and death. In the middle, acting as a barrier between the two, is Jesus Christ. It illustrates the Catholic dogma that, only by having faith in Christ can we avoid death and ascend into heaven.
One small detail is worth mentioning. In the bottom left of the painting is a plant known as Verbascum thapsus, common name mullein. Believed to possess medicinal properties and to ward off evil spirits, it symbolizes the coming resurrection and the triumph over death. Caravaggio also included it in his Saint John the Baptist (, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Rest on the Flight into Egypt (, the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome).
Caravaggio's Entombment inspired many other works, including most notably: The "Entombment of Christ" (c, Charcoal and white chalk, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) by Guy Francois (); and "The Entombment" (, National Gallery of Canada) by Peter Paul Rubens.
Within three years of completing the Entombment, Caravaggio fled Rome and sought sanctuary in Naples, following a brawl in which he killed a man. Four years later he was dead. For more about his work in the south of Italy, see: Caravaggio in Naples () and Neapolitan School of Painting.
Explanation of More Paintings by Caravaggio
The Calling of Saint Matthew ()
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew ()
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.
Supper at Emmaus ()
National Gallery, London.
Death of the Virgin ()
Amor Vincit Omnia (Victorious Cupid) ()
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.
Entombment of Christ (Deposition of Christ)
1. Identification & Artist Bio:
Entombment of Christ.
Oil on wood.
Jacopo da Pontormo was an Italian mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work starkly contrasts from regular Florentine renaissance works with his lack of calm perspectival regularity. He is famous for the subjects in his work to have a lack of gravitational limitation, often found floating in an uncertain environment. In his younger years, he lived with a series of famous renaissance men. The most notable man he lived with was Leonardo da Vinci. Most of his works were funded by Medici patronage.
2. Description & Formal Analysis of Art:
Pontormo, like many late Italian renaissance artists, participated in the Mannerist era. Pontormo’s work “Entombment of Christ” is often referred to as “the poster child of mannerism” for its defiance of naturalism while also utilizing naturalistic techniques such as the shadowing and linear perspective. This being a mannerist work, it is very unlike the naturalistic paintings from the early and high renaissance with it’s lack of any background or scenery, along with the elongated bodies and anatomically impossible positions the figures are in. Only figures can be seen besides some ground and a cloud, which was never seen in early/high renaissance paintings or altarpieces. Symbolism found in inanimate objects are absent as well, but over dramatic and almost unnatural facial expressions symbolize the somber overall feeling this work displays. There is no focal point for your eye to rest on in order to showcase the hectic nature of the scene, which was also a common mannerist quality.
3. Art Making Process (materials and technique):
This was a basic yet very large wooden altarpiece. Standing tall with a height of inches and a width of 76 inches, this altarpiece was carefully painted with oils.
4. Content (subject/iconography):
In a whirl of brightly colored fabric and bodies in motion, a heavy and pale dead body that is Christ rests atop unstable shoulders and in unsteady hands of another man. Christ’s legs are draped over the shoulders of a man on tiptoes, almost beckoning the viewer of the altarpiece to help carry Christ’s body that has been heavied with sin. Although this work is called “The Entombment of Christ” it is widely debated that this is Christ being placed in his tomb. With only the figures present and an absent tomb, many debate that this work is actually the deposition of Christ. “Deposition” meaning that this painting portrays Christ being taken off the cross. No cross is present, which is the reason why others argue it is his entombment. Mary is present in this work, and she can be seen slightly larger than the other figures. The position she is in along with her facial expression suggests that she is displaying the late medieval concept of “the swooning Virgin”. Her near petrified face looks as if she is about to faint, and this was mostly popularized in the late medieval ages but can also be seen here. The theatrical lighting, the elongated limbs, and the over dramatic facial expressions are all typical of early mannerist works.
5. Original Context/Audience:
A majority of the work Pontormo created was commissioned by those in the Medici family, yet it is unclear whether or not they were the ones to commission this work. Pontormo was mainly a painter of religious works, but he did paint a series of secular Medici family portraits. The audience for this piece were the ones who lived in the Florence Charterhouse, who all happened to be very religious in their beliefs.
6. Intended Function/Purpose:
Now residing in the Capponi Chapel in Florence as it’s main altarpiece, this work was originally residing in the Florence Charterhouse. This charterhouse was a roman catholic monastery. While the Entombment of Christ is no longer in the Florence Charterhouse, other work by Pontormo can still be found there. With it’s obvious religious iconography, this altarpiece was meant to convey the raw suffering that Christ and the ones around him felt at the time of his death.
7. Thematic or Cross-cultural connections:
Italian mannerist works often modeled their figures in their paintings from Hellenistic sculptures. Just like how mannerist art is referred by many as the transition period between naturalistic renaissance art and baroque art, the Hellenistic period is referred to as the transition period between the decaying Greek Empire and the emerging Roman Empire. Hellenistic art was quietly looked down upon because many believed that no one could rival the genius that was Grecian art, and Hellenistic art was proof that art quality was declining. The entombment of Christ was not anatomically correct, which vastly contrasted from early naturalistic works. Those who were enthusiasts of naturalistic art believed that mannerist art was lazy and was not reaching it’s full potential.