Saturday, May 25, 2013

"The Entombment of Christ" by Caravaggio

The New Orleans World's Fair was a big deal in 1984.  We saved our pennies, put the kids in the car, and went.  There was a lot to see, and we didn't see it all by any means. 

Most of my memories of the exhibits at the Fair have been blotted out by that one memory from the Treasures of the Vatican exhibit.  We entered the Vatican Pavilion and wandered through exhibits of interesting artifacts, intricately carved sarcophagi, sculptures, and other works of art. 

The smaller exhibit rooms opened into a large room - a gallery where  pictures lined the walls.  And then I saw it - "The Entombment of Christ" by Michelangelo Caravaggio, and I've never been quite the same since.

I've always loved art, but having no formal education in art history, I couldn't identify this painting.  Fortunately, there was a plaque there that gave the name of the painting and the artist's name.  Before leaving the Vatican Pavilion, we went to the gift shop where I bought a very small print of  "The Entombment of Christ" which, by the way, is also called "The Deposition."  I still have it.

Since then I've learned a few facts about this painting.  Michelangelo Caravaggio painted it in 1602 for St. Maria in Vallicella, a chapel in Rome.  Today a copy hangs in this chapel, and the original painting resides in the Vatican.

I like realism in art, and Caravaggio was a leader in the realist trend of the seventeenth century.  He arrived in Rome when he was in his early twenties.  He didn't lack for work.  Huge new churches were being built, and Caravaggio did his part to meet the demand for paintings to fill these churches.

There are three women in "The Entombment of Christ."  Mary, the wife of Clopas, raises her hands to heaven as if to ask why this thing has happened.  Mary Magdalene looks on with bowed head and a look of resigned grief.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, spreads her arms wide over her son's body as mothers often do in their efforts to protect their children.  I can almost hear her say, "Careful.  Don't drop him." 

Jesus is portrayed as a muscular man - a realistic interpretation, I think, since after all, he was a carpenter and had spent his adult life lifting and fashioning wood into useful objects or dwellings. 

It is Nicodemus whose arms are circled around and under Jesus' knees.  There seems to be some confusion about who Caravaggio was portraying in the shadowy figure who supports the upper part of Jesus' body.  Some art experts say it is the disciple John, and others suggest that it may have been Joseph of Arimathea in whose tomb Jesus was buried. 

It's an understatement to say that this is a large painting.  It's 6.5 feet wide and 10 feet high.  It is bigger than life.  In the gallery at the New Orleans World's Fair, it was hung fairly low to the floor.  I felt like I could almost step into the scene.  And indeed Nicodemus looked straight out at me and said, "For you.  He died for you."  It was quite an experience.  I didn't hear an audible voice that people around me could hear, but I heard it nonetheless. 

Until that moment, I thought he had done it for other people - people who were more righteous that I was.  Sometimes I was more hopeful and thought that he died for humanity in general, and maybe - just maybe - by the skin of my teeth I could be accepted as a member of that human sea. 

But Caravaggio's masterpiece brought me an epiphany - the knowledge that Christ sacrificed himself for me - the individual person, me!  - as he also sacrificed himself for the individual person, you!  Thanks be to God.