This small painting depicts a solemn religious scene. Two angels kneel in quiet contemplation next to Christ, whose body has been taken down from the Cross following his crucifixion. While the Gospels make no mention of angels alongside the dead Christ, two are said to have been present at his tomb on the morning of the Resurrection.
Rather than depict the dramatic events of Christ’s crucifixion or resurrection, Guercino has created an imagined moment of grief and quiet reflection. Despite its small scale, the painting evokes a powerful sense of sorrow. One angel is overwhelmed with sadness, his head resting mournfully on his hand; the other looks intently at Christ. The earthy tones used are characteristic of Guercino’s early style.
Works on copper, like this one, are usually of small dimensions and were primarily used for private devotion. The subject of Guercino’s painting, which encourages prayer and contemplation, reflects this.
This small painting depicts a solemn religious scene. Two angels kneel in quiet contemplation next to Christ, whose body has been taken down from the Cross following his crucifixion. While the Gospels make no mention of angels alongside the dead Christ, two are said to have been present at the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection. The painting possesses monumentality, despite its reduced scale, and its intensity of feeling makes it one of Guercino’s most poignant works.
Rather than depict the dramatic events of Christ’s crucifixion or resurrection, Guercino has created an imagined moment of grief and quiet reflection which evokes a powerful sense of sorrow. Naked but for the shroud which will envelop him in the tomb, Christ’s lifeless body anchors the lower half of the composition. He lies back, his head resting limply against a stone block. His face is turned away towards the angel in the centre, who looks intently at him. The other angel is overwhelmed with sadness, his eyes turned downwards and his head leaning mournfully on his hand.
Guercino has not emphasised the horror of the Crucifixion – Christ’s wounds are barely visible and his youthful body appears luminous against the foreboding sky. A halo glimmers around Christ’s head, a sign of his divinity, but his lifeless body is a reminder of his humanity as he leaves his mortal life behind.
This work is much smaller than others by Guercino, who is known primarily for his large-scale religious paintings. It was painted on copper, a material more expensive than canvas, and such pictures tend to be of reduced dimensions. They were primarily used for private devotion, and the subject of this painting, which encourages prayer and contemplation, reflects this. The copper support also gives the paint surface a fresh, textured quality – there are areas of thick impasto, such as in the highlights on the angels’ wings, where the artist’s brushwork stands out.
Painted around 1617–18, this work is characteristic of Guercino’s early style. The rich, earthy tones contribute to the soft but powerful contrast between light and shade. Although the overall colour palette is subdued, the vibrant red of the central angel’s robes stands out, as does the deep grey-blue placed next to the yellow ochre on the right – a colour combination typical of Guercino’s early works.
It is not known for whom Guercino painted this work, but it is first recorded in the Borghese Collection in Rome in 1693. Many copies were made after it, evidence of its popularity. The painting had arrived in Britain by the beginning of the nineteenth century and was among the first pictures – and the first painting by Guercino – to enter the National Gallery’s collection.
A number of preparatory drawings related to this painting exist. One explores two options for the figure of the dead Christ (National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen), while another shows the lifeless Christ with an angel by his side (the Royal Collection).
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