Christ’s descent from the cross was a very common theme in medieval art and continued to be so in the Renaissance. Rogier van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464) was an Early Flemish painter who created the above version of the deposition, as the descent is often known. Here, in the burgeoning Northern tradition, there is a sense of harsh humanity to the skeletal figure of Christ and the deeply moving expressions on the other figures’ faces. The striking thing about this painting, at least from a wider view, is the placement of the swooning Madonna and Jesus, whose poses mirror each others’ in a vision of empathy and symmetry.
Raphael (1483 – 1520) is of course one of the most celebrated Italian Renaissance artists, although he died at only 37. What is significant about Raphael’s version of the deposition is how it takes clear inspiration from classical art. Raphael had been observing Roman sarcophagi and modelled much of the vibrant fluidity of the scene from those, as well as taking cues from Michelangelo’s massively influential Pietà for the Christ figure.
A little later in Italy, we find this deposition of Christ in the Mannerist style by Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557). When I first saw Pontormo’s deposition, having been immersed in Italian Renaissance art for some time, I was jolted awake in every way – it hit me as fresh and alarming and aesthetically mysterious all at once. The first thing to notice (inescapably) is the use of colour; pastel, light, airy, almost insubstantially ethereal so that the painting looks as if it might fly away in a breeze. This is only compounded by the lack of strong lines and the use of meandering, silken textures with limbs and yearning faces that seem to flow into each other in a cloud of melting grief.
In Rosso Fiorentino (1494 – 1540), the deposition draws from the Mannerist style of Pontormo but the colour scheme is markedly more sombre and the figures are busier than in Pontormo. Instead of melting into each other in grief, they are at work in Rosso Fiorentino – the cross itself is a major architectural backdrop for the figures who grapple, jump, twist and reach all around its impervious stature. The ‘squareness’ of fabrics and figures strike me as a great contrast to Pontormo and the positions of the attendants on Christ seem less fluid and and elegant than those in either Raphael or Pontormo. There is also something absolutely remarkable about the placement of the figures and ladders, with the woman at the bottom stretching across, the near-symmetrical (compare this to van der Weyden) imagining of the scene with the impatient emotion of it all… Although Pontormo’s Mannerist pastel explosion struck me with the hardest impact of all the deposition paintings I have seen, I think in the long run Rosso Fiorentino’s will haunt me.