Lamentation over the Dead Christ – Sebastiano del Piombo 

I came across this picture in this week’s Times Literary Supplement as part of an article describing an exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery in London. I thought I’d share it here because it’s such an extraordinarily powerful and mysterious image.

It was painted sometime around 1512-16 by Sebastiano del Piombo, a contemporary of Michelangelo. 

The Pietà (an image of the distraught Virgin Mary lamenting the death of her son, usually cradling his lifeless body) is a familiar subject in religious art, but this particular version is strikingly different.

For one thing, the Virgin Mary is not holding, or even looking at, the body of Christ. She seems instead  to be lost in prayer. 

For another, the figure of Mary towers over the corpse at her feet. Is it just me, or does she look rather masculine too? Assuming this is deliberate, are we seeing her somehow growing in stature, perhaps becoming divine herself?

It’s as if we catch her in the moment in which she is undergoing some form of transformation. In any case she’s not simply overcome with grief as in many depictions of this scene. What she is experiencing remains an enigma. This is not unusual for Renaissance art: paintings in particular often seem to contain secret messages.

The body of her son – brown and apparently without wounds – looks grotesquely stiff, incapable of being embraced. The background is a bleak landscape of ruined buildings and stunted trees, feebly lit by the distant moon.

It’s a stark, comfortless description of the dead Christ, but Mary embodies a sense of determination and hope. Above all, though, it’s a very dramatic painting. 

6 Responses to “Lamentation over the Dead Christ – Sebastiano del Piombo ”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The gospels record that Jesus was whipped, which would have been on his back, and the spear (John 19:34) could have pierced his left rather than right side, but it is odd that no nail pierce marks are visible, especially on Jesus’ right hand/wrist.

  2. Adrian Burd Says:

    Very interesting. I had never heard of this painter, but it seems from what I can discover that Michelangelo promoted him in his own rivalry with Raphael, with the two painters working more as a collaboration. The Pieta was the first such collaboration and it appears, from what I can discover, that the idea behind the composition was Michelangelo’s, though the painting was executed by Sebastiano, who had developed his own style.

    • telescoper Says:

      It is claimed that Michelangelo provided Sebastiano with the composition, and sketches relating to this work are attributed to him (though not proven).

      I find Renaissance Art fascinating because so many superficially conventional works appear rather cryptic, like this one…

    • telescoper Says:

      Ps. The TLS piece makes a similar point about Sebastiano del Piombo’s relationship with Michelangelo. I hadn’t realised that the latter hated Raphael so much!

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Read Vasari’s contemporary Lives of the Artists. It’s a lot more entertaining than it sounds!

    • telescoper Says:

      Pps I had the pleasure of seeing a stunning exhibition of Michelangelo sketches some years ago. I have a print of one on my sitting-room wall. It is exquisite.

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