Pontormo Entombment Analysis Essay

It’s Easter weekend and so I have an excuse to present you with a strange yet elegant and beautiful version of the deposition of Christ from the cross. The Bible gave Renaissance artists ample stories to illustrate for church patrons none more so than the many scenes of Christ’s life and particularly his death and resurrection. I want to take you on a closeup journey through a favourite of mine – ‘Deposition’ by Pontormo. I’m always amazed that it was created in 1526-28, not closer to our own time.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo (1494-1557), a Tuscan painter now familiarly known as Pontormo (the name taken from the town in which he was born), apprenticed in the workshops of a number of well known artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Piero di Cosimo. But it was the painter Andrea del Sarto who is considered his true teacher. (Click here to read my blog on this Renaissance master.) Pontormo was also heavily influenced by the work of his friend Michelangelo.

 

So let’s have a look at this intriguing painting. One thing I must say is that I don’t know what the accurate colour is for this painting but I looked at photos people have taken of it in situ and tried to match this image to those.

 

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

 

I’m going to bring a few things to your attention and then let you look further on your own.

Pontormo worked in the style of that would become known as Mannerism, a term describing a period of art between the High Renaissance  (think Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo) and Baroque. Some of the qualities of this period can be seen in this painting by Pontormo where he uses contrasting colours, sometimes strange proportions, flattening of space, and an unstable perspective. There is less emphasis on a natural representation than there is on a painterly virtuosity and expression of drama.

 

In this painting you can see many bodies filling a space and yet, if you look closely, the space itself is so compressed that it’s difficult to imagine how all those figures can fit into it! Look at the figure whose head is above Christ’s. Just how is she supposed to squeeze in there? Where is her body and how do her arms attach to that body? And yet, somehow, Pontormo makes it work. This is part of the distortion seen in Mannerism.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Further distortion can be seen in the curved bodies of Christ and the figure supporting him. Both have an elongated proportion and a serpentine, almost effeminate, curve that counterbalance each other.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Another strangeness is how so many hands meet at the centre of the painting. Who does each arm and hand belong to? It’s hard to tell when you really start looking. Why would Pontormo create this confusion? Is this a reflection on the complexity of life?

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Furthering the idea that this isn’t a natural representation, let’s examine the skin-tight clothing that’s being worn. Most of the figures can be seen wearing this idea of clothing but its effect is most apparent on the almost androgenous figure top right.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Most paintings depicting the descent from the cross include at least some hint of the cross. Although a ladder was indicated in the preparatory drawing (see below), all that remains is that one wee cloud in the corner. Does it represent the idea of heaven, of redemption, or does it indicate the presence of the holy spirit?

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Jacopo Pontormo, “Preparatory drawing for the Deposition,” date?, media?, 44.3 x 27.6 cm, Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, United Kingdom. (I love the visible grid marks used to scale up to the drawing to painting size.)

In the drawing you can see the ladder that would be leaning against the cross and also the hint of another figure beside it. (In the drawing, you can also see how Pontormo drew the nude figures and then in the painting, added colour to make it seem as if they are wearing clothes!) The ladder brought in the harshness of straight lines and would have spoilt the curving choreography of figures.

 

Even though there’s no cross indicated, by the way Pontormo positioned the figures, we still have the echo of one.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

 

The three figures holding Christ (including the woman who holds his head towards us as if to say, ‘Look upon his face’) all look out beyond the picture plane to our world. Most of the remaining figures are focused on Mary. This sets up a tension in the painting. The figures with Christ seem to be pulling him away to the left, while the other figures circle and block Mary who almost leans away to the right. This is the moment of separation when a mother gives up her son. (The diagonal line prefigures the use of this device in Baroque art to create a more dramatic image.)

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

 

There’s a figure on the right who also looks out. The drab colours he wears look out of place in this technicolour tableau. It’s a self-portrait. By including himself, Pontormo bears witness to the event, confirming for us that this is not a realistic depiction of the event but a representation of emotion and faith.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Adding to the sense of this being an aesthetic experience rather than a depiction of reality is the lightness of the figures. This is particularly true of Christ.  If you look at the figures supporting his body you don’t see any evidence of Christ’s weight. They don’t seem burdened at all so much so that the lower figure is precariously balanced on his toes.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

Another giveaway that this isn’t the real thing is that we get a cleaned up version of the scene. There’s no blood, no crown of thorns, no dirt, no sweat, only clean, clear colours and sharply defined shapes. Death hardly mars Christ and it’s only his limp body and the grey pallor around his eyes and lips that gives the situation away.

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, “The Deposition,” 1526-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm (123 x 76 in), Capponi chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Detail

 

There’s more I could say but I will leave it there.

To see the picture in detail, go here.

 

Do you agree with my observations or do you think I’m off the mark? Do you have observations of your own you’d like to make? What do you think of this painting? I’d love to hear from you so please don’t feel shy about leaving a comment!

 

Happy Easter!!

 

Until next time,

~ Gail

 

Related

Entombment of Christ (Deposition of Christ)

1. Identification & Artist Bio:
Entombment of Christ.  
1525-1528 C.E. 
Oil on wood.

Jacopo da Pontormo was an Italian mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work starkly contrasts from regular Florentine renaissance works with his lack of calm perspectival regularity. He is famous for the subjects in his work to have a lack of gravitational limitation, often found floating in an uncertain environment. In his younger years, he lived with a series of famous renaissance men. The most notable man he lived with was Leonardo da Vinci. Most of his works were funded by Medici patronage.

2. Description  & Formal Analysis of Art:
Pontormo, like many late Italian renaissance artists, participated in the Mannerist era. Pontormo’s work “Entombment of Christ” is often referred to as “the poster child of mannerism” for its defiance of naturalism while also utilizing naturalistic techniques such as the shadowing and linear perspective. This being a mannerist work, it is very unlike the naturalistic paintings from the early and high renaissance with it’s lack of any background or scenery, along with the elongated bodies and anatomically impossible positions the figures are in. Only figures can be seen besides some ground and a cloud, which was never seen in early/high renaissance paintings or altarpieces. Symbolism found in inanimate objects are absent as well, but over dramatic and almost unnatural facial expressions symbolize the somber overall feeling this work displays. There is no focal point for your eye to rest on in order to showcase the hectic nature of the scene, which was also a common mannerist quality.

3.  Art Making Process (materials and technique):
This was a basic yet very large wooden altarpiece. Standing tall with a height of 123 inches and a width of 76 inches, this altarpiece was carefully painted with oils.

4. Content (subject/iconography):
In a whirl of brightly colored fabric and bodies in motion, a heavy and pale dead body that is Christ rests atop unstable shoulders and in unsteady hands of another man. Christ’s legs are draped over the shoulders of a man on tiptoes, almost beckoning the viewer of the altarpiece to help carry Christ’s body that has been heavied with sin. Although this work is called “The Entombment of Christ” it is widely debated that this is Christ being placed in his tomb. With only the figures present and an absent tomb, many debate that this work is actually the deposition of Christ. “Deposition” meaning that this painting portrays Christ being taken off the cross. No cross is present, which is the reason why others argue it is his entombment. Mary is present in this work, and she can be seen slightly larger than the other figures. The position she is in along with her facial expression suggests that she is displaying the late medieval concept of “the swooning Virgin”. Her near petrified face looks as if she is about to faint, and this was mostly popularized in the late medieval ages but can also be seen here. The theatrical lighting, the elongated limbs, and the over dramatic facial expressions are all typical of early mannerist works.

5. Original Context/Audience:
A majority of the work Pontormo created was commissioned by those in the Medici family, yet it is unclear whether or not they were the ones to commission this work. Pontormo was mainly a painter of religious works, but he did paint a series of secular Medici family portraits. The audience for this piece were the ones who lived in the Florence Charterhouse, who all happened to be very religious in their beliefs.

6. Intended Function/Purpose:
Now residing in the Capponi Chapel in Florence as it’s main altarpiece, this work was originally residing in the Florence Charterhouse. This charterhouse was a roman catholic monastery. While the Entombment of Christ is no longer in the Florence Charterhouse, other work by Pontormo can still be found there. With it’s obvious religious iconography, this altarpiece was meant to convey the raw suffering that Christ and the ones around him felt at the time of his death.  

7. Thematic or Cross-cultural connections:
Italian mannerist works often modeled their figures in their paintings from Hellenistic sculptures. Just like how mannerist art is referred by many as the transition period between naturalistic renaissance art and baroque art, the Hellenistic period is referred to as the transition period between the decaying Greek Empire and the emerging Roman Empire. Hellenistic art was quietly looked down upon because many believed that no one could rival the genius that was Grecian art, and Hellenistic art was proof that art quality was declining. The entombment of Christ was not anatomically correct, which vastly contrasted from early naturalistic works. Those who were enthusiasts of naturalistic art believed that mannerist art was lazy and was not reaching it’s full potential.

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