In this 1603 altarpiece executed for a chapel of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Caravaggio delivers a poignant rendition of Christ’s deposition and entombment. The compact group of disciples is arranged in three rows. In the front row, the men—John and Nicodemus—are busy supporting the dead body of Jesus, slowly ushering it into the tomb. In the second row, two women offer a more spiritual participation in the event: Mary, the mother of Jesus, is bowed in prayer, her right hand outstretched over her son’s face in a gesture of acceptance and blessing, while Mary Magdalene sheds silent tears over the one who delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2). In the back row, Mary, wife of Cleopas, raises her arms emphatically, crying to heaven.
That Christ ‘descended into the lower [regions] of the earth’, as St Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:9), is quite literally what Caravaggio represented here. As it hangs above the altar in the church of Santa Maria in Valicella in Rome, the viewer’s gaze is exactly aligned with the surface of the earth, objectified by the thick, flat tombstone, whose angle points in our direction. Jesus’s body, whose movement is highlighted by the lowered arm and the white linen flowing like water from his side, is being hauled down by the disciples into the impenetrable darkness underneath the stone.
Alongside its narrative content, Caravaggio’s painting sheds light on the ecclesiology of Saint Paul. The group of disciples, with its male/female and active/contemplative components, is archetypal of the Church in its entirety. The body of Christ, bathed in light, lies at the bottom of the composition, while the group of disciples is, as it were, ‘built’ on that foundation. Furthermore, the descending movement of the body is balanced by the ascending movement of the disciples, from the front to the second row, and from there to the last, where Mary stands, her hands outstretched towards the light.
4 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.