Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Deposition, or Entombment of Christ (c. 1602-1604), Vatican Museum, Rome



 Following the crucifixion, Christ's nude body, muscular but dead, is being lowered into the tomb, accompanied by gestures, bodily positions and facial expressions of intense but controlled grief in the five figures that assist and accompany the burial...the three Marys: including the Virgin, the Virgin's sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene; Nicodemus, who, in tradition, removed the nails from Christ's feet on the cross; and a shadowy figure identified as either John, writer of the Gospel, or Joseph of Arimathea, who obtained Christ's body from the Romans.  For simplicity's sake, we'll call him John.


 There are few histrionics; just deep loss.  Caravaggio's tightly compact figure composition, set against a background of the absolute blackness of death and emotional suffering, creates a literal cascade of heads and hands, starting at the upper right in the raised hands and upraised gaze of Mary of Cleophas; through the head and hand of Mary Magdalene; down around the left side of the painting, through the Virgin Mary's head,  covered in a nun's habit, and her extended hand which appears almost to spring from John's head; then the darkened face and clothing of John himself, a necessary but somewhat secondary figure in the painting's structure; to Christ's face, head hanging backward in death; down his hanging arm to the finger tips which just overlap the stone lid of the tomb.  Only the trailing end of Christ's white drapery continues the downward flow below the lid, to the left of the black opening of the tomb at the very bottom of the painting, where it just touches one leaf of a plant that seems a clear symbolic reminder, in the midst of the tragedy of Christ's death, of the coming resurrection and ultimate immortality.


 Six figures in all, including Christ, participate in this waterfall of heads and hands that, in the angles of their positioning, gradually decline from the vertical, through the diagonal to the horizontal in a fan-like movement or wheeling motion pinned to, centered in, the face and upper body of Nicodemus, clad in brown, the movement completed in the horizontal body of the pale Christ (except for his downward curving arm), the largest area of light in the painting.


 Christ is the lowest figure in the composition because he is being lowered toward the tomb, though his body is still essentially at mid-level in the painting, with the five living figures above Him and the tomb.  The composition, a juxtaposition of life and death, is a metaphor for immortality in two ways.  All of the figures are on top of, surmount the tomb and death.  And the horizontal Christ serves as the compositional and redemptive dividing line – as He is for Christians – between the life above and death below...the ultimate barrier to death.  However, at this moment, before the unknown and unexpected resurrection yet to come, the downward looping of the white winding cloth beneath Christ's hips also suggests – adds to -- the drooping weight of the dead body and the power of death pulling from the tomb below.


 The massive volume and weight of the figure group and each individual within it -- genuinely monumental in their creative conception, achievement and humanity – are supported, "stand," as it were, on four "legs" that "attach" themselves to, or overlap the top of the tomb lid.  These supports press forward three-dimensionally from the negative space of the background darkness seen behind and between them.  Two are the actual legs of the brown-clad Nicodemus, bare, thick and muscular, on the right, whose arms embrace and support the legs of Christ at the knees.  


 In an important aside...the triangle created by the bend of Christ's knees is subtly and almost invisibly echoed by the triangular apex of Nicodemus's elbow pointing outward in space -- protruding three-dimensionally rather than parallel to the picture plane -- directly at the viewer in the most sophisticated compositional "knot" or conjunction of forms in the painting...a kind of foundational, three-dimensional yin-yang form (Caravaggio often uses the curve and counter-curve, yin-yang movement of forms in his paintings, as he does elsewhere in "The Deposition").


 The third major leg or support for the figure composition in the far left side of the picture is the combined hanging arm and white cloth of Christ, and, more subtly, the robe and part of a leg of John holding Christ from behind.  John's face and dark green shoulder are deeply shadowed, keeping him a secondary personality and pictorial element that allows the lighter heads of Nicodemus and Christ to establish their emotional and compositional dialogue (an alternating rhythm of "light" head, "dark" head exists along the cascading outer edge of the figure group).  This darkness also allows the top of the red drape to assert itself as it begins its journey toward the bottom of the painting; as well as allowing the lighter, extended right hand of Mary to declare itself, and flutter, in protective blessing over Christ's upturned face.   


 The fourth support is the centered red robe that falls from one shoulder of John as he lifts Christ by his upper back.  The red drape, originating behind the head of Nicodemus, hangs in a curve echoing the trailing arm of Christ, angling diagonally downward behind the hips of Christ.  The drape's red color draws attention to Nicodemus' head as the ultimate center of the picture, and serves as the emotional and compositional link of blood and passionate sorrow between Nicodemus and Christ (and His Passion), as it also represents the sorrow of the other mourners.  The drape's red color (forming another yin-yang relationship with Christ's body...a cross) ends in a fold behind the feet of Nicodemus on the right, along the top of the tomb lid.


 Nicodemus' face has the lined, ruddy look of a working man weathered by sun and wind, his furrowed brow climbing toward a high hairline...the type of man so often favored by Caravaggio as a model, no doubt for the character in their faces and labor-muscled bodies.


 The head and hunched, bowed back of Nicodemus, expressive of his physical and spiritual burden, create, as previously mentioned, a compositional core like a large steel pin, a locking mechanism holding all the forms and emotions in place.  He is the only one that turns toward the viewer, as if to share with us his sorrow and the horror of the event, though his eyes, if not closed, see nothing in his grief, do not really look at us.  Rather, it's as if he turns his head to avoid having to look at Christ's body and pale face, mouth open in death.


 Aside from Christ's ultimate symbolic and spiritual importance, Nicodemus is the key figure in the painting, certainly among the living.  His body is its compositional and symbolic anchor.  It is gnomish in posture and proportions.  The massive feet and calves seem not to allow room in his body for proportional thighs and hips.  His head is large, matching his lower legs, but too much so for his short back and waist.  There can be no question of artistic error of proportion here.  Caravaggio is too great an artist for such accidents.  Rather, when one considers the perfection of Christ's slightly fore-shortened body, and the perfectly formed humanity of John and the three Marys, it seems clear Caravaggio has intentionally created a troll-like being in Nicodemus.  He is so different from everyone else in the painting in every way.   


 Almost hunch-backed, does Nicodemus represent some primitive helper, primeval force risen from the bowels of earth to assist a god, meld powers of earth and nature with those of heaven and the spirit?  Religion, mythology and psychology are replete with symbolic beings that represent the natural forces of the earth that come forward to aid humanity, appearing either spontaneously or as a result of being called during times of travail (Disney's Seven Dwarfs are a popular manifestation).  For this coupling of Christ and Nicodemus represents a major yin-yang symbol of the dynamic unification of these opposite beings...the divinely and physically perfect Christ, and the dwarfish, ill-proportioned, but physically very strong, and emotionally sympathetic Nicodemus.  The question is...did Caravaggio create this elemental symbol consciously, or was he so deeply stirred by the emotions and ideas of his own painting that his feelings surfaced unconsciously in the creation of this immensely profound symbol of the duality of life made one?


 What appears to emerge in this relationship of Nicodemus with Christ is the power of a primary archetype of the melding of earth and heaven, nature and the divine – like the winged horse, Pegasus, of Greek mythology -- which must be joined to reach the deepest, highest understanding and fulfillment.  Physical existence without spirituality, or poetry without earthliness, results in a one-sidedness that misses the linking of the ordinary with the extraordinary necessary for wholeness.


 Caravaggio's massive forms are alive, existing in space, and convincing – inevitable – in their relationships with each other.  The organic humanity of Christ's body – the flesh and bones, and softness of his draperies – and those of the others, contrast strongly with the stark geometry and harsh rigidity of the cubic tomb lid that serves as a compositional platform for the figures, a narrow stage that supports the terrible drama, nearly floating over the abyss of nothingness...as if this illuminated, salvational, cosmic event is all that stands between us and the vast darkness of death and the universe.


 The tomb cover is also a symbol of life and death, not only because of its nature and function.  Caravaggio has divided it into a light side and a dark side...a side of light and life, and one of darkness and death.   The corner of the thick stone lid – a razor-like vertical edge -- rather than parallel to the picture plane, protrudes triangularly outward toward the viewer like the elbow of Nicodemus.  The two are literally pointing fingers involving us, asserting that we are part of this eternal drama of life and death.  Both also serve to open and expand the three-dimensionality of the painted forms and their existence in an enhanced three-dimensional space.  Amplifying an earlier description, in a further symbolic underscoring of the ultimate victory of life over death, the fingers of Christ's trailing hand overlap and touch the light side of the tomb cover rather than its dark side, as the hanging white drape leads to the green plant rather than the blackness of the tomb opening.  


 In a gesture largely hidden by the figures in front of her, the Virgin Mary – Christ's mother, of course – extends her arms and hands in a picture-wide blessing and indication of acceptance of His death and destiny that echoes the horizontality of Christ and the tomb lid (one hand in light, the other in shadow also reflects the light and dark sides of the tomb cover edge).  This shadowed hand of the Virgin may serve as an ultimate pivot point (like the declaration of a subterranean foundation of faith) at the extreme right of the picture, behind Nicodemus' back (though his expressive, spiritual, compositional significance is not diminished), toward which all of the following forms converge (or from which they emerge) – from the top of the painting down – the upraised hands, arms, head, white sleeve and ochre gown strap of Mary of Cleophas; the head, shoulder and upper arm of Mary Magdalene; the habit-clad head of the Virgin (her neck over-lapped by the hand of the Magdalene in front of her); the forms and contours of Nicodemus's back narrowing to his waist; and the angled thighs of Christ...all meeting, or nearly so, if extended, on the extreme right side of the painting at the Virgin's darker hand; a microcosm supportive of the major compositional fanning of forms cascading down the left side.


 The major lights are linked in the painting.  Christ's body and hanging white drape, at the bottom of the picture, connect with the lights in the three Marys at the top, through Christ's angled thigh and lower legs, bent at the knee.  These lights in Christ form, in part, the bottom of an X -- with Nicodemus' elbow as its center crossing point -- passing behind Nicodemus' arm and back to reach the upper lights striking the flesh and fabric of the three women standing behind...to the right in Mary Magdalene and Cleophas, and left to the Virgin.  The compositional X may be extended, in implied form, to the bottom of the painting in the light calf and foot of Nicodemus on the right and the hand of Christ on the left.


 The realism and massive solidity of the forms are of the highest level, as is the use of color, compositional complexity and masterly construction.  Caravaggio is a genius, of course, in painting people, their reality and ebb and flow of feeling; and making of them significant three-dimensional forms in three-dimensional space.  This is one of the great monumental paintings...one of the great creative monuments in art history.  


 The longer "The Deposition" is studied, the more is revealed...like art in general, and life itself.  One symbolic, compositional, expressive, poetic, spiritual layer after another appears, though the painting is so richly complex, it is doubtful that it can be completely understood, its final core of construction and meaning ever reached.  The painting expresses the essential mystery of existence.


 Caravaggio's "Deposition" may be viewed at the following web addresses:





Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms