Descending from the Cross

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435)

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435)

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.

deposition_of_christ raphael

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.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

Jacopo Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

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.

Rosso Fiorentino, Deposition (1521)

Rosso Fiorentino, Deposition (1521)

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.

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The Renaissance Adores the Shepherds

See how the shepherds,
Summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither
Bend our joyful footsteps.
Adeste Fideles

The Adoration of the Shepherds, shortly after 1450
Andrea Mantegna (born no later than 1430, died 1506)
Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood

The above painting by 15th century Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna is an early depiction of vivid, even ugly, detailed and descriptive realism in the portrayal of the shepherds as they come to adore the Christ Child. I like how they both seem to be in motion. One seems to have just taken off his hat, the other just in the process of setting his elbows down and his palms together and both with their legs half way down to kneel. Whereas all else (Mary, Jesus, etc) are static, the shepherds capture the eye with their movement. Mantegna was an early master of realist description in painting.

Portinari Altarpiece, detail (1475-76).
Hugo van der Goes  (c. 1440 – 1482/1483)
Oil on panel

Then in the Netherlandish painter, Hugo van der Goes, painted the Portinari Altarpiece, one of the most extravagant, vibrant and influential depictions of the Nativity. Van der Goes portrays the shepherds in a similarly realistic style to Andrea Mantegna. Notice how their faces are rugged and un-idealised like those in Mantegna and they are similarly in motion, although not in such stark contrast to the poses around them as they were in Mantegna. There is a more general sense of lavish movement, rich colour and involvement in the scene in van der Goes. Another thing I notice is the individualism of the shepherds in van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece: look at how the front shepherd has a serene expression as his palms meet in fervour; how the man in green and red holds his hands out in a state of ‘beholding’, almost as if he would pick up the child, emphasising his smallness and yet his significance at the same time. Then my personal favourite is the shepherd behind them, craning his neck with his hat humbly to his chest, a simple curiosity on his beautifully realistic face.

The Adoration of the Shepherds (1485)
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449 – 11 January 1494)
Tempera on panel

Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici bank, commissioned the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio to decorate a chapel. Ghirlandaio, one of whose apprentices was Michaelangelo, was highly influenced by the work of Hugo van der Goes. In fact, Ghirlandaio is responsible for bringing the Portinari Altarpiece (an extract of which is seen above) to Florence, where it remains today. Ghirlandaio’s interpretation of the Adoration of the Shepherds, housed in the Sassetti Chapel, clearly shows the Flemish influence of van der Goes, with the interaction and realism of the shepherds. Although notice that one of the shepherds actually carries a lamb here. Of course, this isn’t just a touch of characterisation (although I think it’s that as well); here Ghirlandaio crosses the symbolism of the Christ Child, who is so often figured as a lamb, but also as a shepherd of the Christian flock, into the humble actual shepherd pictured here. That, coupled with the pointing of the shepherd out front (who I have heard is a self-portrait of Ghirlandaio) combine to create a sense that the shepherds truly are participants in this holy occasion, that they are truly connected to the child.

I feel like there is less emotive power and astonishment in the shepherds in Ghirlandaio than there was in the van der Goes; a greater sense of poise and symbolism but perhaps less pathos. Perhaps as time goes on we lose the rusticity and ‘ugliness’ of the shepherds somewhat (although it is certainly still there to an extent).

I’ve also noticed that in the earlier Italian Mantegna painting, the shepherds are specifically moving as running uphill towards the child. In the van der Goes they keep some distance, enhanced by the rays emanating from the child – he is the most startlingly holy of the three baby Jesuses, I think. In the Ghirlandaio, there is the least space between the shepherds and the baby. They are right beside him, crammed tightly close like in the Mantegna, but unlike in the Mantegna they are on a level with the child, if you look at their feet.

Just some thoughts, but it’s interesting to me how as the fifteenth century progresses, the rusticity of the shepherds appears to decrease and they become more and more stylised in their meanings (the symbolism and the fact that it maybe a self-portrait in Ghirlandaio, as opposed to the torn trousers and anxious movement of the Mantegna). I think my personal favourite is the attention to detail in the van der Goes. Perhaps it is more in keeping with the Northern Renaissance style to vividly display both piety and individuality in one richly coloured moment. Certainly Ghirlandaio saw something special about the van der Goes altarpiece.