Saturday, April 7, 2012

Meditation on the Passion – In the Tomb

Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation Oer the Dead Christ
Italian, ca. 1490
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
From the late afternoon of Good Friday until the evening of Holy Saturday the Church keeps prayerful, quiet vigil. The tabernacles are empty, the altars are bare, no Mass is celebrated. We remember the second day (from sundown to sundown) of the Passion, the day on which Jesus’ body lies in the tomb. We ponder the sacrifice and await what we know is the joyful outcome. 

Artists have done this also. They have wondered, as we do, about what was happening on that second day. Taking their guide from the phrase in the Apostles Creed “He descended into Hell” some have imagined Jesus freeing Adam, Eve and the righteous ancestors from their bondage in Limbo. Others have imagined the Body of Jesus simply lying in the tomb. Still others have imagined the Body of Jesus tended by angels, who console and prepare Him for the Resurrection. Last year we looked at the first of these.1 This year we will look at the second and third images.

Probably the most astonishing image of the second of these types, the Dead Christ, comes from the brush of Andrea Mantegna, one of the great north Italian painters of the Quattrocento. Often called the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, it shows the body of Jesus, depicted in excruciating detail, in extreme foreshortening, with the nail-pierced feet immediately before our eyes. It is barely a Lamentation, receiving the title only because of the partial inclusion of two people, a man and a woman, at the extreme left edge. The woman is sometimes identified as Mary, but I am doubtful about this. Rather, I think these are two older people of Mantegna’s era and not the richest of his contemporaries either. The woman is shown wiping her eyes, the other figure (presumably a man) is barely visible in profile. This startling image, combining the 1st-century corpse with 15th-century people, still startles us as it must have startled his contemporaries. 

This image, not idealized, detailed, even brutal, became a model for other artists to follow. And, although it was never a popular image, there were followers. Among them were other artists with a realistic, almost scientific bent: Hans Holbein the Younger, Philippe de Champaigne and Giuseppe Sammartino.

In these images we are presented with “just the facts”, a dead body, a cadaver.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Dead Christ in the Tomb
German, 1521
Basel, Kunstmuseum

Philippe de Champaigne, The Dead Christ
French, Prior to 1654
Paris, Louvre Museum

Giuseppe Sammartino, Dead Christ in a Shroud
Italian, 1753
Naples, Santa Maria della Pieta dei Sangro

In the third type, the Dead Christ tended by angels, we see something very different. These images have a deep relationship with the Man of Sorrows image, especially the form of the Man of Sorrows in which Jesus is supported by another person. But, in this variation, the humans have been replaced by angels.

The angels are sometimes sad and sorrowing, sometimes busy working on preparation for the Resurrection. They support and prepare His physical Body for its new, glorified existence.

Alessandro Allori, Dead Christ with Two Angels
Italian, ca. 1600
Budapest, National Museum
This tiny painting, painted on copper, is a bridge between the "scientific" Dead Christ and the
Dead Christ with Angels.  Here the angels tenderly minister to the Body of Christ, preparing it for its
new role. 
Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ Supported by  Angels
Italian, ca. 1474
Rimini, Pinacoteca Comunale
Not surprisingly, Venetian artists, like Bellini, were among the first to adapt the Man of Sorrows image to that of
the Dead Christ supported by angels.
Rosso Fiorentino, Dead Christ Supported by Angels
Italian, 1524-1526
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Rosso portrayed a typically Mannerist image of a contorted, unstable body barely supported by the angels.
Paolo Veronese, Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels
Italian, 1587-1589
Berlin, Staatliche Museen
Guercino, Angels Mourning the Dead Christ
Italian, 1618
London, National Gallery of Art

1.  See also "O Key of David!  Come, break down the walls of death" at

© M. Duffy, 2012

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