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.
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
38Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
44And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
27And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
32Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
33And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.