Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo based this painting on a picture of the same subject by Rembrandt (also in the National Gallery’s collection). Both make dramatic use of light and shade. Here Christ’s pale, limp body is highlighted by a white shroud. The two men crucified alongside Christ still hang on their crosses, their slumped bodies obscuring their heads. The ‘good thief’, who recognised Christ and was saved, is bathed in subtle light while the ‘bad thief’ is in shadow.
On the right, two men – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – balance the verticals of the crosses and form a frame to the subject. Beside their feet lies a grief-stricken Mary Magdalene; her head is the start of a diagonal path upwards, through Christ, the Virgin and Saint John and up the ladders to the dark cloud above. The blue sky beyond implies that there is hope: Christ’s resurrection.
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo based the composition of The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross, painted between 1755 and 1760, on The Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Rembrandt. He may have seen the painting when it was in the collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice between 1738 and 1762.
Both paintings make dramatic use of light and shade. The focus is on the body of Christ, pale and limp, highlighted by a white shroud. The two men crucified alongside Christ still hang on their crosses, their heads hidden by their own bodies: one man’s head has presumably fallen forwards, the other backwards. A subtle light emphasises one of these figures – the ‘good thief’, who, according to the Gospel of John, recognised Christ as the son of God and was saved. The cross in shadow, that of the ‘bad thief’, is balanced by the ominous cloud above, and the loosely applied paint gives movement to the physically still but emotionally charged figures.
In Domenico’s painting, the faces of the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Mary Magdalene, lying on the ground and identifiable by her fair hair, are all partially concealed; their body language tells us of their grief. The strong primary colours of the Virgin’s blue robe and Saint John’s red one lead the eye to Christ, whose recumbent body provides a strong horizontal base to the composition. On the right, two men – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – balance the verticals of the crosses and form a frame to the subject. Beside their feet lies a grief-stricken Mary Magdalene; her head is the start of a diagonal path upwards, through Christ, the Virgin and Saint John and up the ladders to the dark cloud above, suggesting the link between death, mourning and the tragedy of the Crucifixion. But the blue sky beyond implies that there is hope. This is not the end of the story: the scene looks towards Christ’s resurrection.
For many years while in the National Gallery’s collection, this painting was thought to be the work of Domenico’s father, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. However, cleaning has confirmed that Domenico painted it. He applied a simple approach to painting this tender scene and there are certain aspects that reflect his draughtsmanship – the composition dwindles away on the left side, with a less detailed description of the figures when compared with those to the right. We also own a larger version of the Lamentation by Domenico, which shows a wider view of this scene with the central figures in different poses. In that painting, the Virgin gazes upwards, her eyes full of sorrow, and Christ faces towards us in a more upright position, allowing a more direct view of his withered body and bleeding wounds. Both paintings were inspired by Rembrandt’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, which is of a similar size to the painting we see here.
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