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The artist of this panel has sculpted the drops of blood which fall from Christ’s side and hands and then painted over them to emphasise their gore. The circular wounds in Christ’s hands were caused by the nails of the Crucifixion and the wound in his ribcage by a Roman soldier’s spear. Christ’s head dangles limply to one side and heavy eyelids seal his eyes closed. He is shown in death but standing upright in his open tomb.
This kind of image showing the dead Christ with a focus on his wounds was called the ‘Imago Pietatis’ (‘image of pity’) or the Man of Sorrows. It was based upon an image from Byzantium, the Eastern Christian empire, and its purpose was to inspire empathy for Christ’s suffering and death.
Byzantine images were particularly popular in Venice which had close links with Byzantium. This picture has been removed from the frame which connected it to a larger multi-panelled altarpiece. The location of the other panels has not been established.
Images like this were made to provoke empathy for Christ’s suffering and death. He is shown after death, upright inside his open tomb, naked apart from a transparent loin cloth. His halo, which is now quite damaged, is encircled with rays; geometric shapes painted red, blue and green imitate gemstones. His hands cross in front of his concave stomach. Fat drops of blood drip from his hands and a slit-like wound in his side.
The droplets stand out from the picture surface – the artist sculpted them using gesso (a type of plaster), then painted over them. He may have been inspired by sculptural representations of the Crucifixion known as crocefissi dolorosi (’sorrowful crucifixes‘). White highlights on the ribcage and collarbone make them appear protruded as they catch the light, emphasising Christ’s emaciation. His eyes are closed; dark upturned crescents emphasise the heaviness of the lids. The image is a detailed study of physical pain and hardship.
This kind of image was known as the ’Imago Pietatis‘ (’image of pity‘) or the Man of Sorrows, and it is based upon an image from Byzantium, the Eastern Christian empire. Jacobello del Bonomo was from Venice, where Byzantine imagery was particularly common and popular. The Crusaders’ plunder of Constantinople (Byzantium’s capital) in 1204 and Venice’s trade links with the eastern Mediterranean meant there were plenty of precious Byzantine works of art to inspire Venetian artists. A particular source for this portrayal of Christ was a highly respected mosaic in a church in Rome, dating to the twelfth or thirteenth century. By the time this picture was made, the Catholic Church promised 20,000 years‘ Indulgence (the amount of time a soul would be spared purgatory before entering heaven) for praying in front of representations of the Imago pietatis. It became one of the most popular religious images in Italy.
Jacobello adapts the tradition by including the Cross, painted in blue, behind Christ – a reminder of the Crucifixion. The uppermost crossbar contains the damaged remains of a gilded inscription: INRI (the Greek abbreviation for ’Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews'). It is connected to the main part of the Cross with what looks like a narrow tree branch. This was supposed to remind worshippers of the Tree of Life, which represents eternal life, recalling the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, where humankind existed before sin. The message is that Christ’s Crucifixion and death caused the forgiveness of humanity.
Jacobello also includes angels with thuribles, perfume burners swung on chains, as a way of honouring Christ’s body. Their robes are not painted but rather patterned using a technique called stippling: the gold was stamped with lots of tiny dotted indentations. This created a dense texture that would have sparkled in candlelight. Close examination reveals that the angels are hovering above little clouds, now quite damaged, painted with expensive ultramarine paint.
An area of bare wood is exposed. This would have been covered with a frame which connected it to other pictures in an altarpiece. We do not know which altarpiece this precious and emotive image comes from but it almost certainly topped the centre of a large polyptych forming a pinnacle above an image of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. This would remind viewers of Christ’s ultimate fate but also of their redemption through their faith. Another example of the Man of Sorrows in this position is Crivelli’s The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels.
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