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Caravaggio - Entombment of Christ

by Karima Knickmeyer

Darkness. It is already late in the evening when two men lower a lifeless body into the ground. Three women, engrossed in prayers, make it clear that this is a religious scene, a burial. But who is the man, the body, which seems to be carried towards us out of the darkness? In general, the entire group seems somewhat strange, as they seem to move so intertwined.

The painter of this oil painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, could have represented anyone according to the bare view. The hulking, plainly dressed men are men of the people and the same is apparently true of the women in the painting. The figures shown are apparently ordinary people, they cannot be identified as saints. And yet; the artist shows us the burial of Christ by Nicodemus and John, accompanied by Mary, the mother of Christ on the far left, as she spreads her arms in blessing and protection, Mary Magdalene in the center, with her head bowed, and another woman, referred to as Mary of Cleopha, who has thrown her arms upward as if in invocation to God. 

The perception of this scene, however, is not so much about the exaltation of Christ and his companions as unattainable, idealized saints from the Bible narrative, but about the empathy with the fate of Christ and the sorrow, the experienced pain of very real people. As if one were experiencing it oneself. And there is a reason for that. This painting was commissioned for a burial chapel of the Vittrice family in the Oratorian Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome. The Oratorian order wants to make worship and the story of Jesus palpable and tangible. So if we imagine that this image, this entombment and lamentation of Christ, is to be seen and experienced in a place of mourning and prayer for a deceased person, we can understand why it was so important to be able to sympathize with what was shown. The expression of the gestures and the physical, described in a visually striking way by the dramatic light-dark contrast, is what makes us empathize. The closeness to Jesus is to be experienced, because according to the Bible narrative he is not only divine, but also human. And thus it can be understood why he is compositionally so closely surrounded by those around him. He is one of them.

Beyond that, however, the picture has another important task - it should give hope to mourners. But how? If we look closely, we see that the right hand of the supposedly dead man is not hanging limply, but that he is holding his fingers in a gesture of blessing and touching the grave slab. His own grave slab? But why would he bless this, his tomb, memorial of his martyrdom?

This moment illustrates that the burial is therefore important so that it can be followed by the resurrection and thus the overcoming of death. Without death, no awakening, no overcoming of suffering, of sin, of mere human existence. Through the fragments of the figures' clothing emerging white from the darkness, Caravaggio also describes a diagonal. The shroud falls down, below the grave slab it points to death. Nestled around Christ's corpse, it presents us with the sphere of the human, the physical, and the worldly. In turn, through the arms of Mary Cleophas thrown up in invocation to God, the narrative points upward, into the sphere of God and redemption, beyond the image and beyond our world of experience. The artist thus conveys the consolation of the imminent resurrection already through the moment of entombment. Several moments, spheres and experiences in a single picture and that visually spectacular - Caravaggio is not without reason among the luminaries of European art history.

Caravaggio - Entombment of Christ

Oil on canvas, 1600-1604, 300 x 203 cm, Vatican Museum in Rome


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