Matthew 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42
The Burial of Christ
The Burial of Christ
Comparative commentary by Jennifer Sliwka
Jennifer Sliwka: The burial of Christ is described in all four of the canonical Gospels. Joseph of Arimathea is described as a wealthy man and a member of the Jewish council who went to Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman ruler of Judaea, and asked for his permission to remove Christ's body from the cross and to prepare it for burial. In one of the Gospels, according to John, we read that he was accompanied in this task by another man called Nicodemus. And together they lowered the body from the cross, they prepared it for burial, and they wrapped it in linen sheets, and buried the body.
Despite being discussed in all four Gospels, there’s very little additional detail provided by the authors. And this is enabled artists over the centuries to be quite creative in representing Christ's burial and entombment.
A particularly innovative artist is Andrea Mantegna, who represents the dead Christ in extreme foreshortening in the 1480s. On this relatively small canvas he manages to include the whole body of Christ, as if projecting out of the picture plane.
And it gives special attention to the wounds and the feet of Christ. And this brings to mind a contemporary text by a German–Dutch theologian, Thomas à Kempis, who, in his Imitation of Christ, encourages his readers to dwell in the wounds of Christ.
Mantegna also gives special attention to this marble slab that the dead body of Christ is being presented to the viewer on, and this calls to mind a medieval tradition, possibly even earlier, of describing the exact site where Christ's body was laid and was prepared for burial. And in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, even today, there is a stone that's described as the Stone of Anointing, or the Stone of Unction, that is believed to mark the exact site of this preparation for burial.
What's curious in Mantegna’s painting is although we have the Virgin and John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea seems to be conspicuously absent. And that makes me wonder if we, the viewer standing in front of this painting, might occupy the position and role of that man.
Michelangelo’s representation of the Entombment, or Burial of Christ, in his unfinished altarpiece from about 1500–01, might be interpreted as the next narrative moment in the burial of Christ.
If we think about the body being anointed and prepared for burial in Andrea Mantegna, here we see Christ's body has been lifted up by the figure of Joseph of Arimathea behind him, and it's also supported on either side by John the Evangelist and one of the Marys. As they pick up the body of Christ, interestingly here, they seem to hold him up for us, the viewer, presenting his perfect, immaculate, and naked body for the beholder, almost as if the priest who celebrates the eucharistic Mass in front of this altarpiece might hold up the eucharistic wafer as the body of Christ.
In the lower right hand of the panel there is an absent figure, and this is intended for the figure of the Virgin Mary, and I imagine that the body of Christ now being drawn away from her had just been laying in her lap. And that particular iconography of the figure of the dead Christ laying in his mother's lap is known as the Pietà, or Vesperbild in the German tradition, perhaps the most famous example being by Michelangelo himself, now in the Vatican.
The motif of the Pietà is picked up by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer in his work entitled Invisible Mother of 2015, and here Fischer has transformed the traditional iconography and replaced the dead body of Christ with a skeleton which is draped over a chair.
The title of the work, The Invisible Mother, might be interpreted as describing the absent figure of the Virgin Mary, here just replaced by a chair, but with one additional element of a water hose. And the water hose here functions to transform the whole object into a fountain, the water perhaps recalling the tears of the Virgin as she laments over the dead body of her son. But it also transforms the whole into what, certainly in the medieval period onwards, was described as a fons vitae. This is the fountain of everlasting life. This is a term that was often applied to the figure of Christ himself, where he was often represented as a fountain with the blood that was emitting from his wounds being caught up in a font or by chalices. I think Fischer's work has all of these resonances, but of course it is also an entirely secular work, a work that has been installed in art galleries, in gardens around the world, and it speaks to both a religious and a secular audience. The skeleton, for example, might also call to mind another genre from the history of art; that is the memento mori, the tradition in which we are reminded of our own mortality. All of these things help us think about how we might live our lives today. We might question what constitutes a life well lived.
And in that way, Fischer's work is operating in a very different way to the Mantegna and the Michelangelo. And yet all three are inviting us to ask very different questions about the role of the body of Christ, and about the different ways that artists over the centuries have creatively responded to that challenge, in that particular absence of detail in the text.