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.

The Lavish World of Agostino Chigi, Richest Banker in Rome

farnesina villa

The Villa Farnesina

Welcome to the luxurious villa of Agostino Chigi, richest man in Rome. Chigi lived from 1466 to 1520, born with a good inheritance and name but destined to monopolise huge amounts of mercantile ventures throughout Europe, ending up with perhaps 20,000 people in his employ. His success was guaranteed by a close relationship with the warrior pope, Julius II, whom Chigi even accompanied into battle (a banker and a pope mounting the attack..!). But Chigi, although himself not a man of great education, was a serious show-off when it came to art and culture.

Titian's Pietro Aretino (one of several portraits of Aretino)

Titian’s Pietro Aretino (one of several portraits of Aretino)

He patronised the man you see above, whose looks shouldn’t fool you into thinking he was the grandfatherly type. An illegitimate bisexual wit, Pietro Aretino was a notorious writer (perhaps he’s a kind of Italian equivalent of the English John Wilmot  – author of Signior Dildo, etc). Pietro Aretino satirised half the men in Italy and half the intellectual pursuits too, dabbling in pornographic writing and working in the coterie of our flush friend Agostino Chigi.

Raphael, Galatea, c. 1511 (Photo courtesy of Web Gallery of Art)

Raphael’s Galatea

Of course, Chigi wanted visual spectacle too. Hence he patronised that pinnacle of High Renaissance elegance, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (or to the English, Rapahel). In the astonishing villa that Agostino Chigi had built, several artists adorned Chigi’s surroundings with frescoes. Raphael’s are the most famous and the ‘Galatea’ above was commissioned for Chigi’s illustrious Venetian mistress. Charged with movement, grace and eroticism, you can see why.

Perspective view of the Sala delle Prospettive, Villa Farnesina

Perspective view of the Sala delle Prospettive, Villa Farnesina

But perhaps my favourite instance of Agostino Chigi’s conspicuous consumption (although admittedly nowhere near the finest achievement of his spending) is his feasting. He would prove just how little lavish spending meant to him by throwing outrageous feasts and then having the expensive silverwear thrown away afterwards. Of course, servants would quickly go catch and collect it again in secret. Even a rich man doesn’t want to throw away something of value.