The Descent from the Cross by Jacopo Sansovino

Jacopo Sansovino

The Descent from the Cross, c.1513, Gilt wax and wood, in full relief, 97.8 x 89.5 cm, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 7595-1861, V&A Images, London / Art Resource, NY

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The Deposition of the Thieves

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Jacopo Sansovino’s Descent from the Cross is modelled in high relief and set within a shallow wooden tabernacle measuring 96 cm in height. The figures are made of wax, typically employed in the design process rather than for finished artworks, suggesting that it began life as a model; unusually, it was preserved and transformed into a domestic tabernacle by gilding the figures and setting them in a fashionably classicising frame. It may be identical with the wax model of a Deposition that Sansovino is said by Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Sansovino, to have made for the painter Perugino to follow in an altarpiece.

It is additionally unusual in its treatment of the two thieves, who, on the rare occasions when they appear in Deposition images, are usually shown still hanging on their crosses, rather than already descended. Christ here is still being brought down, the tricky process of negotiating his weight on the steep ladders beautifully orchestrated through the taut lines of slings and the almost balletic poses of the bearers.

Below, on Christ’s privileged right-hand side, is the Good Thief, his body still partly suspended from the ladder, leaning almost intimately close to, and virtually part of, the group around the ‘Swooning Virgin’ (the latter being an established iconography that developed in the late Middle Ages). Through his form and placement, and the network of ladders and slings linking him and his cross to that of Christ, the Good Thief’s virtue is implicit. By contrast, the Bad Thief and his cross are isolated from the rest of the action. His body, slumped in an ungainly pose, head thrown back, arms hanging downwards, carried unceremoniously like a carcass, is in stark contrast to the Good Thief, whose graceful, almost Christ-like form is given a privileged position in the composition, and whose upraised left arm might hint at the promise of admission to heaven.

 

References

Boucher, Bruce. 1991. The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, 2 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press), vol. 1, pp. 10–11; vol. 2, p. 306

Vasari, Giorgio. 1912–15. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, vol. 9, ed. by Gaston de Vere (London: Macmillan), p. 189

Williamson, Paul (ed.). 1996. European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications), pp. 94–95, 191


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