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February 21, 2011

The Entombment

Caravaggio 1602-1604.

118 ¼ x 80”

Oil on canvas.

For Chapel of Pietro Vittrice Santa Maria Vallicella, Rome.  Now in Vatican Museums.

Caravaggio’s Entombment for the Vittrice chapel in S.M. Vallicella is reminiscent of a pieta, to which the church is dedicated.  Caravaggio’s use of gestures in this composition conveys pathos during this momentary hesitation before Christ is placed in the tomb.

The group of figures stands on a slab of rock.  This slab mimics the shape and placement of the altar.  However, instead of being parallel to the picture plane, the slab is on an angle, the corner protruding toward us.  Christ’s burial shroud spills over the edge, into our space.  Caravaggio did not paint the abyss that is the tomb, but leaves it for us to decide where it is – is it off to the side? If so, a horizontal swoop is detected in the movement of the figures.  Or will Christ tumble into our laps?

Detail of Caravaggio's Entombment, 1602-1604.Moir describes the group of figures as motionless (96).  Although each is engaged in individual mourning and emotion, they are frozen in time.  Those carrying Christ’s body are straining, but one cannot imagine this being an easy task.  They seem to struggle a bit, but while trying to hold reverence, slowly lower Him into his supposedly final resting place.

The two men carrying Christ are Nicodemus and Saint John.  Their gestures towards the dead Christ add to the emotion of this composition (Moir 96).  Nicodemus appears as if he is not ready to let Christ go; he is clinging to his legs.  Saint John feels Christ’s wound as he carries him, perhaps in disbelief.  Christ’s hanging arm appears to imitate that of Michelangelo’s Pieta and Raphael’s Entombment (Sgarbi 124).  It hangs languid, yet the veins make it seem full of life.

Mary Cleophas, the woman in the back with her arms outstretched, is one of two figures in the composition whose face is illuminated.  Moir suggests she is seeking divine guidance.  Divine guidance can be found, presumably, in the only other figure who is facing the Light, Jesus Christ (96).

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

Sgarbi, Vittorio.  Caravaggio. Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A. 2007.

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