It’s Easter weekend and so I have an excuse to present you with a strange yet elegant and beautiful version of the deposition of Christ from the cross. The Bible gave Renaissance artists ample stories to illustrate for church patrons none more so than the many scenes of Christ’s life and particularly his death and resurrection. I want to take you on a closeup journey through a favourite of mine – ‘Deposition’ by Pontormo. I’m always amazed that it was created in 1526-28, not closer to our own time.
Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo (1494-1557), a Tuscan painter now familiarly known as Pontormo (the name taken from the town in which he was born), apprenticed in the workshops of a number of well known artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Piero di Cosimo. But it was the painter Andrea del Sarto who is considered his true teacher. (Click here to read my blog on this Renaissance master.) Pontormo was also heavily influenced by the work of his friend Michelangelo.
So let’s have a look at this intriguing painting. One thing I must say is that I don’t know what the accurate colour is for this painting but I looked at photos people have taken of it in situ and tried to match this image to those.
I’m going to bring a few things to your attention and then let you look further on your own.
Pontormo worked in the style of that would become known as Mannerism, a term describing a period of art between the High Renaissance (think Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo) and Baroque. Some of the qualities of this period can be seen in this painting by Pontormo where he uses contrasting colours, sometimes strange proportions, flattening of space, and an unstable perspective. There is less emphasis on a natural representation than there is on a painterly virtuosity and expression of drama.
In this painting you can see many bodies filling a space and yet, if you look closely, the space itself is so compressed that it’s difficult to imagine how all those figures can fit into it! Look at the figure whose head is above Christ’s. Just how is she supposed to squeeze in there? Where is her body and how do her arms attach to that body? And yet, somehow, Pontormo makes it work. This is part of the distortion seen in Mannerism.
Further distortion can be seen in the curved bodies of Christ and the figure supporting him. Both have an elongated proportion and a serpentine, almost effeminate, curve that counterbalance each other.
Another strangeness is how so many hands meet at the centre of the painting. Who does each arm and hand belong to? It’s hard to tell when you really start looking. Why would Pontormo create this confusion? Is this a reflection on the complexity of life?
Furthering the idea that this isn’t a natural representation, let’s examine the skin-tight clothing that’s being worn. Most of the figures can be seen wearing this idea of clothing but its effect is most apparent on the almost androgenous figure top right.
Most paintings depicting the descent from the cross include at least some hint of the cross. Although a ladder was indicated in the preparatory drawing (see below), all that remains is that one wee cloud in the corner. Does it represent the idea of heaven, of redemption, or does it indicate the presence of the holy spirit?
In the drawing you can see the ladder that would be leaning against the cross and also the hint of another figure beside it. (In the drawing, you can also see how Pontormo drew the nude figures and then in the painting, added colour to make it seem as if they are wearing clothes!) The ladder brought in the harshness of straight lines and would have spoilt the curving choreography of figures.
Even though there’s no cross indicated, by the way Pontormo positioned the figures, we still have the echo of one.
The three figures holding Christ (including the woman who holds his head towards us as if to say, ‘Look upon his face’) all look out beyond the picture plane to our world. Most of the remaining figures are focused on Mary. This sets up a tension in the painting. The figures with Christ seem to be pulling him away to the left, while the other figures circle and block Mary who almost leans away to the right. This is the moment of separation when a mother gives up her son. (The diagonal line prefigures the use of this device in Baroque art to create a more dramatic image.)
There’s a figure on the right who also looks out. The drab colours he wears look out of place in this technicolour tableau. It’s a self-portrait. By including himself, Pontormo bears witness to the event, confirming for us that this is not a realistic depiction of the event but a representation of emotion and faith.
Adding to the sense of this being an aesthetic experience rather than a depiction of reality is the lightness of the figures. This is particularly true of Christ. If you look at the figures supporting his body you don’t see any evidence of Christ’s weight. They don’t seem burdened at all so much so that the lower figure is precariously balanced on his toes.
Another giveaway that this isn’t the real thing is that we get a cleaned up version of the scene. There’s no blood, no crown of thorns, no dirt, no sweat, only clean, clear colours and sharply defined shapes. Death hardly mars Christ and it’s only his limp body and the grey pallor around his eyes and lips that gives the situation away.
There’s more I could say but I will leave it there.
To see the picture in detail, go here.
Do you agree with my observations or do you think I’m off the mark? Do you have observations of your own you’d like to make? What do you think of this painting? I’d love to hear from you so please don’t feel shy about leaving a comment!
Until next time,