The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio. Secrets of the Masterpiece.

Caravaggio. Entombment of Christ.
Caravaggio. Entombment of Christ. 1602-1604. Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Before us are the body of Christ and five figures.

His body from the side of the head is kept by St. John, the youngest disciple of Christ.

From the side of legs, Nicodemus holds him. He was a resident of Judea and secret disciple of Christ.

In a dark blue robe – St. Mary. She extended a hand to her son’s face, saying goodbye to him forever.

Mary Magdalene wipes her face from tears.

And the farthest figure is Maria Kleopova. Most likely, she is a relative of Christ.

The figures stand very closely together. They are like a single monolith protruding from the darkness.

Of course, this is a masterpiece. But what makes this picture so outstanding?

As we see, the composition is quite interesting. But not original.

The master used the existing formula. Raphael portrayed Christ in approximately the same position at the beginning of the 16th century. As well as mannerists * half a century before Caravaggio (1571-1610).

Left: Raphael. Entombment of Christ.Right: Jacopo Pontormo. Entombment of Christ.
Left: Raphael. Entombment of Christ. 1507. Borghese Gallery, Rome. Right: Jacopo Pontormo. Entombment of Christ. 1526-1528. Santa Felicita Church, Florence, Italy.

Caravaggio did not shock us with the realism of a dead body. As he did in The Death of Virgin.

Instead of a beautiful, as if sleeping saint, we see a dead woman. Swollen body. Bare feet. Lifeless pallor of the skin.

Caravaggio. Death of Virgin.
Caravaggio. Death of Virgin. 1606. Louvre, Paris.

Caravaggio did not experiment with the location and lighting of figures. As, for example, in The Call of St. Matthew. When the figure of Christ is in the darkest and most distant part of the picture.

Caravaggio. Calling of Saint Matthew.
Caravaggio. Calling of Saint Matthew. 1600. San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

In The Entombment of Christ the body of God’s Son does not scare us with its appearance. It is in the foreground. All the light falls on him.

However, there are several points in the picture that make it a masterpiece. Although these innovations of Caravaggio are not so noticeable.

1. Engaging the Viewer

Caravaggio brings us closer to what is happening. We seem to be standing on the edge of the grave.

The edge of the plate and Nicodemus’s elbow seemed to break through the space of the picture.

Now please look at the picture of Caravaggio’s teacher, Peterzano.

Simone Peterzano. Mourning.
Simone Peterzano. Mourning. 1584. San Fidele Church, Milan.

As if characters of the picture are demonstrating the body of Christ. He reclines so that his dead body looks as noble as possible.

They are dressed in beautiful satin fabrics. And in the background Veronica holds her veil with the face of Christ. So that you can clearly see it.

In this, you can feel theatricality. You as an outside viewer, in front of whom the performance unfolds.

Caravaggio pursued other goals in his picture. He wanted to get you into action.

Therefore, Nicodemus looks in your direction. As if by the next impulse, he will give the body of Christ to you.

There was no such thing in art before. This is Caravaggio’s innovation.

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2. Extreme Simplicity

Most of Caravaggio’s contemporaries followed the fashion of the nascent Baroque. Overflowing his paintings with pompous symbolism and chubby angels.

Caravaggio didn’t like allegories and unnecessary details.

He wanted anyone to understand his paintings. And he tried to achieve the expression of sincere feelings among the characters.

In this he was the exact opposite of the mannerists, whose painting was more like puzzles for the most educated.

Agnolo Bronzino. Allegory with Venus and Cupid.
Agnolo Bronzino. Allegory with Venus and Cupid. 1545. National Gallery of London.

For example, not understanding mythology, not knowing the language of symbols, you can hardly understand Bronzino’s picture “Allegory with Venus and Cupid”.

Why does this girl have the legs of a lion and the tail of a snake? Why does she hold a honeycomb in one hand and a sting in the other?

The paintings of Caravaggio were very clear. In his “Entombment of Christ” there is nothing that would distract your attention from the main plot. Maybe only a lone grave flower.

His characters are even dressed very simply. No silks. No ultramarine and cute little angels. In addition, people from the street always posed for him.

He found suitable faces among simple laborers and prostitutes.

So, Maria Kleopova (the one that raised her hands) is a prostitute Phyllis. She posed for him for his other paintings. For example, for “Martha and Mary Magdalene.”

Caravaggio. Martha and Mary Magdalene.
Caravaggio. Martha and Mary Magdalene. 1598. Museum of Art, Detroit, USA.

But many were annoyed that in the guise of saints they recognized prostitutes they knew.

3. Realism

Caravaggio portrayed St. Mary, 55 years old. It seems that she looks older than her years because of grief that befell her.

Caravaggio. The position in the coffin. Fragment.
Caravaggio. The position in the coffin. Fragment. 1603-1605. Pinacoteca of the Vatican.

Her age is realistic. That is exactly what a woman could look like, whose son is 33 years old.

The fact is that before Caravaggio, Saint Mary was depicted as young.

Annibale Carracci. Pieta.
Annibale Carracci. Pieta. 1600. Capodimonte Museum, Naples, Italy.

For example, Carracci, the founder of the first art academy, followed the same trend. His holy Mary and Christ in the painting “Pieta” – about the same age.

4. The Feeling of Dynamics.

Caravaggio portrayed a moment when men are in great tension. It’s hard for St. John to hold his body. It’s not easy for him. He awkwardly touched the wound on Christ’s chest with his fingers.

Nicodemus is also at the limit of his strength. The veins on his legs swelled. It is evident that he is holding his burden with all his might.

We see them slowly lower the body of Christ. Such unusual dynamics makes the picture even more realistic.

Caravaggio. Entombment of Christ. Fragment.
Caravaggio. Entombment of Christ. Fragment. 1603-1605. Pinacoteca Vaticana.

5. The Famous Tenebroso.

Caravaggio uses the tenebroso technique. In the background is pitch darkness. And the figures seem to emerge with a dim light directed at them.

Many contemporaries criticized Caravaggio for this manner. They called it “basement.”

But this particular technique is one of the most characteristic features of Caravaggio’s work. He was able to maximize all its advantages.

The figures acquire extraordinary relief. Emotions of heroes become extremely pronounced. The composition is even more integral.

This manner has become very popular thanks to Caravaggio.

Among his followers, the Spanish artist Zurbaran can be distinguished.

Please look at his famous painting “Lamb of God.”

Tenebroso creates the illusion of reality. Lamb as if alive lies in front of us, lit by a dim light.

Francisco de Zurbaran. Lamb of God.
Francisco de Zurbaran. Lamb of God. 1635-1640. Prado Museum, Madrid.


Caravaggio was a reformer of painting. He is the founder of realism. And The Entombment of Christ is one of his greatest creations.

It was copied by the largest masters, which also confirms its value for world art. One of the most famous copies belongs to Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens. Entombment of Christ.
Peter Paul Rubens. Entombment of Christ. 1612-1614. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

The plot of Entombment is very sad. But such stories Caravaggio most often depicted.

I think this is due to childhood psychological trauma.

At 6, he watched his father and grandfather died in agony from the bubonic plague. Then his mother went crazy with grief. From childhood, he learned that life is full of suffering.

But this did not prevent him from becoming the greatest artist. True, he lived only 39 years. He died alone when he was on the run. His body disappeared without a trace.

* Mannerists – artists working in the mannerism style (50-70-year-old era between the Renaissance and Baroque, 16th century).

Characteristic features: oversaturation of the composition with details, elongated, often twisted bodies, allegorical subjects, increased eroticism.

Prominent representatives: Giorgio Vasari, Giulio Romano, El Greco, Agnolo Bronzino.


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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