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Ercole de' Roberti, The Dead Christ

Key facts
Full title The Dead Christ
Artist Ercole de' Roberti
Artist dates active 1479; died 1496
Group The Este Diptych
Date made about 1490
Medium and support Tempera on wood
Dimensions 17.8 × 13.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1894
Inventory number NG1411.2
Location Gallery C
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Dead Christ
Ercole de' Roberti

This little picture formed the right side of a diptych (a work of two parts). It was joined with central hinges to The Adoration of the Shepherds. Ercole made this for the Duchess of Ferrara, Eleonora of Aragon, when he was court painter at Ferrara. Eleonora’s personal prayer centred on the Corpus Christi (Latin for ‘body of Christ’), so this imagery is appropriate. Christ is shown nearly naked, just after his death. Two angels prop up his limp corpse and we can see marks from the nails of the Crucifixion on his hands. A faintly sketched image of Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion, appears on the hill; Christ’s slumped body is being removed from the central cross. Saint Jerome – identifiable by his symbol, the lion – kneels next to Christ’s tomb. He holds a rock, ready to strike his chest. This was an act of penitence which in this context was probably supposed to encourage humility and self denial.

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The Este Diptych


The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Dead Christ were originally joined with hinges to form a diptych – an object made up of two painted panels – that could open and close, creating a visual prayer book. It probably belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara. An inventory of her possessions records just such a work, covered in cherry-red velvet; traces of red velvet remain on the back of these two pictures. The images portray the beginning and end of Christ’s life but the focus is on his body.

Eleonora was particularly devoted to the Corpus Christi (‘the body of Christ’). She played a prominent role in the annual feast that celebrated the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, when Christ instructed his disciples to drink wine and eat bread in commemoration of his blood and body. She was closely connected to a religious group that focused their prayer upon the Corpus Christi and was buried in their church in Ferrara.