This is one of perhaps only three surviving panel paintings by the great Florentine artist Michelangelo. It shows Christ’s body being carried to his tomb. It was probably made for a funerary chapel in the church of S. Agostino, Rome – commissioned in 1500 and left unfinished when Michelangelo returned to Florence the following year.
Saint John the Evangelist may be the figure on the left carrying Christ’s body on strips of winding cloth helped by one of the Three Marys. They carry him up a staircase to his tomb in the rocks. The man behind Christ is either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus. Another of the Three Marys, possibly Mary Magdalene, sits on the ground. The space left empty on the right was probably intended for the kneeling figure of the Virgin Mary. The other female figure on the right is probably another of the Three Marys, Mary Salome.
This unfinished painting shows Christ’s body being carried to his tomb in the rocks behind him. It is one of only three known surviving panel paintings by the great Florentine artist Michelangelo – the others are The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) and the Doni Tondo (Uffizi, Florence).
In 1500 Michelangelo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the funerary chapel of Giovanni da Viterbo, the deceased bishop of Crotone, in the church of S. Agostino, Rome. Although the subject of the altarpiece is not documented, it is likely that this was the commissioned painting. The chapel was dedicated to the Pietà, and the Entombment would have been an appropriate subject. The lighting in Michelangelo’s painting is from the left, which accords with the natural lighting of the chapel, and the picture’s measurements would have fitted the width of the chapel bays.
However, the altarpiece was left unfinished when Michelangelo returned to Florence the following year, probably to procure for himself the great block of marble being offered by the authorities of Florence Cathedral, intended for a statue of David – a statue for which he signed the contract in August 1501 and which he would complete in 1504 to his everlasting fame (Accademia, Florence). He would not return to Rome until 1506 and returned the advance payment for the altarpiece to the friars of S. Agostino when he failed to deliver it.
There is some disagreement over the identity of the various figures in the painting. Saint John the Evangelist is usually shown in red with long hair, and may be the figure on the left carrying Christ. The woman who strains with Saint John to carry Christ’s body on the strips of winding cloth in which it will eventually be bound is one of the Three Marys, probably Mary Cleophas, who looked after Christ at the end of his life. They carry him up a staircase to his tomb.
The man who lifts Christ from behind is either Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his own burial place for Christ, or Nicodemus, who helped lower Christ’s body from the Cross and prepare it for burial. Another of the Three Marys, possibly Mary Magdalene, sits on the ground. A drawing for this figure (Louvre, Paris) shows that she was intended to be gazing sorrowfully at the crown of thorns and the nails with which Christ had been crucified.
The space left empty on the right was probably intended for the kneeling figure of the Virgin Mary. Michelangelo would have needed ultramarine blue made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli to complete the missing figure of the Virgin, as her mantle is traditionally painted this colour. The requisite ultramarine is also missing from Michelangelo’s unfinished Manchester Madonna. It may be that he was waiting to the last before adding this colour as it was the most expensive pigment and possibly difficult to obtain. A late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century drawing, made of the painting when it was less worn (Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati, Siena), indicates that the Virgin was to be shown kneeling with her back to the viewer, probably with hands joined in prayer, gazing at the corpse of her son. The other female figure on the right is another of the Three Marys, perhaps Mary Salome.
The Entombment reflects Michelangelo’s belief that painting is better the closer it is to sculpture. The picture is almost a high relief sculpture transposed into paint – the figures are arranged in a bold rhythmic composition and there is little space between them. The focus is on the naked body of Christ, which is shown as perfect and beautiful – God made into man (curiously, Michelangelo never painted his genitals). The twisting movements and defined muscles of Michelangelo’s figures are based on his direct observation and drawing of live models.
More traditional depictions of the Entombment show Christ’s body carried horizontally, but Michelangelo shows it lifted vertically and held up to the viewer as if it were the Eucharist. This arrangement is similar to that used by Fra Angelico in his The Dead Christ before the Tomb of about 1438–40, from the predella of the high altarpiece in S. Marco in Florence. The church was only a few steps from the sculpture garden at S. Marco where Michelangelo learnt to sculpt. This vertical pose also appears in The Dead Christ before the Tomb (now in Badia a Settimo) by the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, where the young Michelangelo trained as a painter.
If Michaelangelo’s painting had been installed as an altarpiece, the priest would have stood in front of it and lifted up the sacrament – the bread – during the Eucharist, so it became the body of Christ silhouetted against his perfect painted body. Christ’s upright position also seems to allude to his imminent resurrection. The startlingly nude body is weightless and pristine with no sign of suffering, perhaps referring to the immaculate resurrected and heavenly body described in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (15: 35–49). In this way the picture is both devotional, inviting Eucharistic contemplation of the dead Christ, and narrative, showing his body being removed from our sight – in a few minutes he will be gone.
Like the also unfinished Manchester Madonna, The Entombment offers a fascinating insight into Michelangelo’s working methods. While the Manchester Madonna is painted in egg tempera on panel, this picture is painted in oils, revealing Michelangelo’s unusual approach to the medium. Michelangelo painted each figure in full before moving on to the next, as though he were painting in tempera, a technique that he had learned in Ghirlandaio’s studio. As in the Manchester Madonna, some colour areas were left entirely untouched whereas others are near to completion. This approach is not often seen in oil painting of this date in Italy – for example, in oil paintings left unfinished by Raphael, we find the whole composition worked up evenly and each colour area left in a similar state of incompleteness.
Instead of creating relief by building up transparent glazes over an opaque underlayer of paint, as was the oil painting technique used in Venice and the Netherlands, Michelangelo modelled his forms by blending his shades into one another while they were still wet. As with his tempera technique, which also creates an opaque effect, Michelangelo added white to create a tonal range and used glazes only for the deepest shadows or specific colour effects.
At the top right he scraped away the dark paint of the rock to suggest the two figures moving back the stone that closes the tomb, removing material just as he did when sculpting in marble. He employed a similar technique of scraping away the paint when working on the Manchester Madonna.
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