This unfinished painting shows Christ's body being carried to his tomb. There is some disagreement over the identity of the various figures represented. Saint John the Evangelist is usually shown in red with long hair, and may be the figure on the left carrying Christ. The others are probably Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathaea who gave up his tomb for Jesus. The kneeling figure to the left is probably Mary Magdalene and the woman at the back right is a Holy Woman (Mary Salome). The Virgin is prepared in outline in the bottom right corner.

The picture came from a collection in Rome, and is thought to be connected with payments made to Michelangelo between 1501 and 1502 relating to an altarpiece for Sant Agostino in Rome which he failed to deliver. This would explain the unfinished state of this painting.

'The Entombment' is generally accepted to be by Michelangelo, since the treatment of the figures links closely with other works by him of this period. The kneeling figure on the left appears to meditate on something in her raised hand. A drawing by Michelangelo in the Louvre, Paris, is clearly a preparatory study for this figure and shows her with the crown of thorns and the nails with which Christ had been crucified.

Gallery insight: Colin Wiggins
Colin Wiggins, National Gallery Education, discusses male beauty in Michaelangelo's painting - 6 mins 54 secs
Transcription

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first, the female body is a recurring theme in art history, much painted and often discussed. Beautiful male bodies, however, have received less attention from critics, although a walk through the Gallery reveals they’re the subject of just as much great art. One artist in particular is known for his nudes: Michelangelo, creator of 'David', painted images of the perfectly sculpted male body that influence our appreciation of the masculine form today. To learn more, I spoke to Colin Wiggins from the Education team about two contrasting images of male beauty from different periods of Michelangelo’s extraordinary career. 'The Entombment' is an unfinished early painting showing Christ’s body being carried to its tomb; what interested Colin about the work?

Colin Wiggins: First of all, it’s only comparatively recently been discovered why it’s unfinished, because I think the first thing that will strike anyone about this picture is that it’s so obviously not finished. But what seemed to have happened is that Michelangelo was working on this commission, but then he got a better offer, and to his credit he gave back the money that he’d been given as an advance, but didn’t want to work on it anymore – wanted to go off and be a sculptor, but it is very much a sculptor’s painting, and I think if we see the body as a three-dimensional piece of sculpture rather than a flat painting, we’re getting much more to the heart of what Michelangelo was trying to achieve.
 
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, that particular pose that Christ’s in, as he’s kind of leaning back having been taken down from the cross, enables us to see quite a lot of his body in detail.

Colin Wiggins: And we see how beautiful it is, that’s exactly right. I mean, Michelangelo was about 25 when he made this and I think what’s motivating him to create a body that’s so perfectly beautiful is that this is God made man, this is Jesus, the son of God, and therefore his body has to be absolutely perfect and ideal, and therefore the perfection of it, the proportions of it, the texture of it, that wonderful rhythm that you get coming down from his chest into his stomach and his thighs, down into his shins and his feet – I find it just sublimely magical. I don’t mean that in a sensual way, I just find the whole structure of this thing profoundly moving as if I really am looking at the dead body of the son of God.

And, of course, part of the purpose of this as an altarpiece is that the priest would stand in front of it and lift up the sacrament, the bread, the body of Christ, at the moment of the holy Eucharist, and raise it up, and at that moment, God intervenes and it becomes bread no longer, but the body of Christ, and the faithful in the congregation will see that silhouetted against this sublime painting.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s interesting that you mention that Michelangelo would have been referring to particular ideals of beauty, but in painting works like this, he’s also set up an ideal of beauty for us to look back on and that’s fed into our own contemporary idea of a beautiful body.

Colin Wiggins: Yes, because we even have a word – ‘Michelangelesque’ – to define this kind of thing. It doesn’t quite equate with this because ‘Michelangelesque’ we tend to think of as the kind of inflated, powerful, over-muscled bodies that he was doing on the Sistine ceiling, whereas this has got a much more gentle, almost feminine quality to it, I would argue.

Miranda Hinkley: So looking at this work that’s very close to the other one, by Sebastiano del Piombo, 'The Raising of Lazarus', this sort of very muscular body of Lazarus is closer to what we tend to think of as a 'Michelangelesque' body…

Colin Wiggins: Yes, that’s absolutely right, and there’s a perfectly good reason for that because it was actually designed by Michelangelo. Michelangelo made drawings of this figure to give to Sebastiano. The story of the raising of Lazarus is from the New Testament, of course, when Martha and Mary’s brother has been struck dead and they are grieving and Christ does one of his most important miracles, which is bring him back to life. You can see the figures behind holding their noses because he’s been dead for a couple of days, so his body has started to go off and there’s a horrible smell but of course Christ overrides that and resurrects him.

I think that many people will be aware of Michelangelo’s most iconic male nude, which of course is Adam on the Sistine ceiling, and if you look at the post of Lazarus here, you’ll see how he’s referring to it. But it’s a very different kind of concept now, because we’ve got those tiny feet and those muscled thighs and that muscled arm. Because if you can imagine him standing up on those feet, he’d really have trouble – he’d be tottering all over the place, and I think that’s part of the meaning of the picture, that the body is an encumbrance. Far from now his soul having been released into wherever, the soul has now been trapped back in that body, and the body is not a comfortable thing one senses…

Miranda Hinkley: It’s got that… on his right foot… the way he’s almost nudging the shrouds off with his toe, it’s kind of an awkward movement, but it’s almost like when you can’t quite be bothered to bend down and take your socks off, you kind of shove them off with one big toe…

Colin Wiggins: Well, I don’t… [laughter]. I think I’d rather make a different analogy, because it’s very balletic, it’s like a ballet pose, when a ballet dancer is walking on points, but even so, if you were a ballet dancer and you had a torso like that, you’d break your ankles every time you tried to pirouette on one foot, wouldn’t you, the weight is so massive and intensive.

But Michelangelo’s understanding of the male body has changed somewhat, and when he’s a young man we can see how that’s personified in early 'The Entombment' with this notion of the ideal, and now he’s considerably older, his own body would have been changing, and he, I think, is affected by that as indeed we all are. That this notion of ideal beauty in a human is something that’s fleeting and transitory, whereas ideal beauty of the soul is something that’s permanent. And so this representation of this very cumbersome, awkward, ugly figure is no longer shown as an example of God’s divine visual beauty, but a divine spiritual beauty.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins.

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty, February 2010

Key facts

Artist
Artist dates
1475 - 1564
Full title
The Entombment
Date made
about 1500-1
Medium and support
Oil on wood
Dimensions
161.7 x 149.9 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1868
Inventory number
NG790
Location in Gallery