Deposition by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Deposition, c.1600–04, Oil on canvas, 300 x 203 cm, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City, inv. 40386, Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Descent / Ascent

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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.

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