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The Entombment

The Laying out of Christ

Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1526). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin. Around 1519.

The Entombment

Simon Vouet (1590-1649). Le Musée d’Art Ancien – Brussels.

Triptych: The Two Thieves, the Entombment, Resurrection

Robert Campin (ca. 1375-1444). The Courtauld Institute and Galleries - London. Around 1420.

Matthew gives a very brief but dignified account of Jesus’s burial. He told that Joseph of Arimathea took the body, wrapped it in a clean shroud and put it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a large stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. Now Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre. Mark notes that the second Mary was Mary of Joset. Luke adds that it was Preparation day and the Sabbath was beginning to grow light. Then the group of disciples returned and prepared spices and ointments. And on the Sabbath day they rested, as the Law required. In his turn, John said that they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices following the Jewish burial custom. John told that at the place where Jesus had been crucified there was a garden and in that garden Jesus was buried. G38

Vittore Carpaccio

As much as the Evangelists Matthew and John, Vittore Carpaccio liked to tell stories in detail. He was a Venetian painter and though little is known of his life, he must have been born around 1465 or 1467. These were the times of the genesis of Venetian style, the times of Gentile Bellini and his son Giovanni Bellini. Carpaccio was not really a student or follower of Bellini, but of course there are style similarities and also a great genius as Giovanni Bellini sometimes liked to tell stories in various scenes on one canvas as Carpaccio became famous for. Vittore Carpaccio worked for the Scuole of Venice on lives of saints, and he also painted for the Doges. His fame as a narrative painter was appreciated in Venice. His most renowned picture is the ‘Entombment’ of Berlin. Carpaccio returned to a very static, early medieval way of representation. But he added also a sense of nature and of warm colour that is all Venetian fifteenth century. His ‘Entombment’ was made around 1505. Carpaccio lived until he was about sixty: he died around 1525.

Jesus is lying dead on a stone. As told in the scriptures, a shroud is under him and a separate one for his head. The stone table is supported by strange table-legs and by a red stone that seems to be the red Ointment Stone. This stone was very famous as a relic in the Byzantine church. It was brought to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages and is preserved in the Tomb Church there. Under the stone we see the sign of Golgotha where Jesus died. Golgotha means the hill of the skulls. Carpaccio has let his imagination dwell into totally unseen images here, since contours of humans are caught in stone slabs, such as on the left. Parts of torsos also lie among the skulls. These are nightmarish visions. Carpaccio has given a very weird, almost alien and magic appearance to the scene of Jesus lying above the bones and torsos.

To continue the strangeness, Job is seating at a tree in the middle right. He is meditating. He is sitting to a tree that is both bearing much foliage, representing life, and dead trunks, representing death. Job was venerated in Venice where a church was dedicated to him, so this may be the reason why Job, who is not usually associated with Jesus, is depicted here D1 . Job was a man of the Old Testament who had been put to the trial by God and who had very patiently and willingly abandoned himself to the designs of God, however terrible for himself and his family. This combination may indicate the danger of the power of Jesus. Jesus can doom people although he is the messenger of love. For Carpaccio Jesus may be a bringer of death, submission, doom and misfortune. This idea is continued in the broken column next to Job, when our view moves from Job to the left. The broken column is usually a symbol of the old Law that Jesus has come to replace with his new learning, but here it is the prolongation of a more morbid theme. So are the further ruins of a Roman temple with the statue of old Gods in the background. A lonely figure is still cleaning or working in full illusion of lost eras at the memorials of Roman emperors. The whole site of this temple looks desolate, forgotten in the desert mountains. On top of that mountain a trumpeter heralds the New Kingdom. Still higher up, at the top of the frame on the extreme left stand the crosses of Golgotha Mountain.

Under Golgotha is the tomb of Jesus. We have the impression that here a story is told of a time later than the entombment. Arab bearded soldiers are turning away the stone from Jesus’s tomb and a figure that must be Joseph of Arimathea has come to wash Jesus. Joseph, equally heavy-bearded, stoops with a pail in his hands. To the far right of this scene are drawn the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Mary of Magdala supports the mother of Jesus. John the Evangelist, the beloved of Christ, is also in this scene, but he turns his back to the viewer. This may be the representation of the theme of the ‘Lamentation’ over Jesus, a scene of still another moment in time. Behind these scenes life continues. Farmers are working in the fields, travellers gallop bye on horseback. Carpaccio shows us the sea and the blue, far mountains that blend with the blue skies in which a few white, delicate clouds pass.

Vittore Carpaccio has painted a very strange picture. Instead of love and warm feelings, instead of gentle sadness for the death of a beloved teacher, the artist Carpaccio introduces the viewer into a world of danger and weird magic. This is a menacing image. The weirdness is answered by the unusual structure of the picture. Few images are so based on the strong horizontal lines and layers that Carpaccio has applied here. There is the long horizontal Jesus lying on the table and then the horizontal strip of the three subthemes: of the opening of the grave, of Job and of the lamenting Maries. Further on are the rocks and the fields that form again a separate strip of the picture, and then also the far landscape. This emphasis on horizontal layers was not very new, and the earlier narrative painters of Venice had used it. Even Giovanni Bellini and also the Florentine Andrea Mantegna had occasionally used it in some of their compositions. Carpaccio continued this way of Venetian narration.

Vittore Carpaccio showed a very different feeling of Jesus, stressing the unworldliness of the death of a God rather than the emotions of a personal God. All religions prepare man for death. But Carpaccio has not shown a sweet, tender death. He gave a vision as if he refused and abhorred the ultimate destiny of man, and as if he saw like this also Jesus’s death, with resentment instead of with Job’s acceptance.

Simon Vouet

Simon Vouet was a French painter of the seventeenth century. This was the century in which the pictorial arts flourished in many European cultures and in which various styles were invented. Baroque art was at its height in the Southern Netherlands and genre painting as well as marines in the Northern Netherlands. Devote Spanish pictorial arts was driven by the very pious court of Madrid and the wealthy abbeys and church orders. French painting had only had isolated masters in previous periods. Schools and subsidised workshops had been founded but mostly led by Italian artists. Leonardo da Vinci had worked on the Loire River and Rosso Fiorentino had played a leading role in the School of Fontainebleau. It was time to create a proper French influential school with a specific style tuned to French society. France had reached finally the full prestige and ample means of its monarchy. The Kings were uncontested and wealthy since they concentrated the revenues of France at the court of Paris. Simon Vouet would be the artist capable to create a dedicated French style. He would lay the foundations for the fame and credibility of painting in France for the next centuries.

Simon Vouet was born in Paris in 1590 and died also in Paris in 1649. He left Paris around 1611 after a short apprenticeship with his father, to travel for two full years. He went as far as Constantinople and made even a picture there of the sultan Mehmet I. He went to Venice and saw the works of Tiziano, of Paolo Veronese and of Tintoretto. From 1614 on he worked in Rome for Cardinal Barberini. He saw the sculptor Bernini at work in the court of the Barberini. In 1621 he travelled to Genoa, where the Baroque artists Pieter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck had painted for several years before him. Of course he studied the pictures of the beginning of the century made by Michelangelo Merisi, the Caravaggio. He married an Italian woman, Virginia da Vezzo, and was destined to the same career as other talented French painters had in Rome such as Nicolas Poussin.

In 1626 the French King Louis XIII asked Vouet to come back to France. The King promised an apartment in the Louvre. The court wanted to establish a French national drive in art. Vouet accepted the offer and started a workshop in Paris that would deliver a generation of painters that included Eustache Le Sueur, Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard. Le Brun founded the first French Academy of Arts under Louis XIV. Mignard followed him up as Director of this state institution. French academism was solidly planted and French art would never wane since Simon Vouet.

Vouet founded French art from the very beginning to the image of the French monarchy. Art would be solid, refined, intellectual, clear, religious and grand. A touch of epics was needed and found in classic themes of antiquity. There was to be not too much sentiment, but much dignity and royal distance.

Simon Vouet’s ‘Entombment’ is based on these concepts. The picture has a very strong structure. Structure would be taught in the French academy of Paris afterwards, and Vouet fully understood the power of structure in Baroque art. His painting is based on the two diagonals, but Vouet did not create movement along these lines like Caravaggio. He more took the lines to create solidity of composition and thus give a sensation of rest in the picture. Vouet placed solid volumes under the diagonals, that is inside the triangles that the diagonals form with the lower border of the frame. Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea entirely follow the first, right diagonal. Their bodies and volume are in the lower right triangle. The second diagonal also forms a base triangle on the left, wherein one finds the Virgin Mary and Mary Salome. The head of Nicodemus is also on this second diagonal. This structure is very solid because the triangles have as their base the lower border of the frame.

The early seventeenth century was the age of Baroque, but Vouet has shown little exuberance of emotions and gestures. Vouet thus certainly did not follow the style of Rubens. There is little movement in Vouet’s picture. Yet, it is a picture of action since Jesus is lowered into the tomb. Only Mary Magdalene has a gesture of immediacy, and she is knelt to a static position. In Flemish Primitive pictures one can find back these static poses and in pictures of Jan Van Eyck for instance. Mary Magdalene is the only figure daring to move arms or hands. So, there is no outburst of emotion, no panic, no chaos here. The figures seem to be caught in a well-organised scene, in actions where each person knows instinctively what to do as in an orchestrated play. Thus, there is rest and dignified restraint in Vouet’s ‘Entombment’. There are no outcries here; it is a picture of silent feelings.

All the actors of the picture have their heads bent in grief. Mary holds her head in sadness. Joseph of Arimathea is grieved and ashamed. Mary Salome is completely bent away. Vouet has been able to express the fundamental, heavy, silent, intent sadness of what must have seemed to be the ultimate catastrophe and end of the teachings of Jesus. One feels that the personal grief of the figures in this picture is enhanced by the profound comprehension of a grander event. This event is the death of the founder of the major religion of Europe and of France. The helplessness at the injustice of the death of Jesus is enhanced by the image of the lifeless body that catches the central light. The feeling is dramatically suggested by Jesus’s left arm that hangs down powerless. This arm hangs outside the tomb, over the knee and legs of Joseph of Arimathea and it points meaningfully to the earth.

Mary Magdalene’s gesture now becomes clear. She points out this arm to Joseph, silently indicating to Joseph a difficulty for putting Jesus in the tomb. This is also a narrative factor in the picture. The Magdalene draws the attentions of Joseph that Jesus seems to point to the earth to which he returns. No one actor looks the other in the eyes. No one touches the other. Christ is lowered and that holds all last tender attention. All eyes are directed to nowhere or to Jesus. These elements add to the general feeling of dignity and restraint of sentiments. No figure looks to the viewer, who sees the scene from very close, and from below. This view was a particular technique used for panels that were hung high, as was the case for this picture. The viewer looked from beneath and entered the scene from below. But here the viewer remains private, non-committed to the theme. The viewer can watch in silence, in respect and from a distance. He is not needed to participate in the action. The picture was one of a series along which one could walk by in church and follow the life of Jesus in silence and private contemplation.

The colours in the painting are soft. Jesus is in full light and gradually from his body as centre out, all colours fade to darker tones. Vouet has shown his considerable skills in the structure of the painting, in the solidity of his composition and in the general character of the image. He used clear and light colours and showed a finely detailed depiction of the play of the tissues. Admire the draperies around the figures and the luxurious colours in the cloak of Mary Magdalene. The robes and gowns bear no ornament; there are no golden linings as one would find in Flemish Gothic pictures. But the simple cloaks become royal ceremonial gowns under the brush of Simon Vouet.

The ‘Entombment’ was made around 1636-1637 for the private chapel of the house of the Chancellor Séguier, for whom also Charles Le Brun would paint. The decoration of the chapel was composed of a central altarpiece, a ‘Crucifixion’ now in the Museum of Lyon, and eleven pictures of the life of Jesus. The ceiling was covered with the triumphant ‘Resurrection’. The ‘Entombment’ is one of those impressive pictures. It is probably of all the pictures of the dead Jesus the one that expresses with the most dignity, distance and intimacy the intense feelings of grief, desolation and sadness at the great dramatic event of the most genial teacher of European humanity.

Vouet could represent his own intimate feelings. His paintings were for a private house and for a chapel that would not be visited by too many persons. He could thus show a serene image of Jesus without looking for dramatic effects. Yet the scene bears on us and is very effective in its message.

The Holy Shroud

All the pictures of the ‘Entombment’ show Jesus Christ being lowered in a white shroud. Even in pictures of the ‘Descent from the Cross’, this white shroud may appear. The Gospels say that the shroud remained in the tomb. Although linen in which a dead body had been buried was considered unclean by Jewish religion, the Apostles may have preserved this most important relic, which was impregnated by the sweat and blood of Jesus. Turin cathedral preserves a shroud of 4.4 meter by 1.13 meter that shows faint imprints in front and back of a tall naked man with an impressive, dignified face. The man is bearded with long hair hanging down to his shoulders. The image shows wounds at the wrists and feet, a wound from a stab in the chest and horrible signs of scourging on the back. Is this the true shroud of Jesus? Now legends and tales from far centuries start.

According to legends the original shroud was sent to Abgar, king of Edessa, who had been a monarch very sympathetic to Christian religion. The town of Edessa, now Urfa in the Middle West of Turkey, a region called Anatolia, became one of the first towns to be Christianised. After Jesus’s death Thaddeus may have travelled to Edessa and cured Abgar with the powers of the shroud, thereby converting King and city. The town of Edessa was conquered and taken in the first century AD and the dynasty of Abgar was destroyed.

During the siege the shroud had been hidden in the thick walls of Edessa. It surfaced around five hundred years later, in the sixth century, and Edessa once more became a famous pilgrimage site. Still not the shroud with an imprint of Christ’s whole body was known, but a cloth with only the face of Christ. This cloth and image was called the ‘Mandylion’, the Greek word for cloth. Its other Greek name may have been the Tetradyplon, which could mean ‘folded in four’. Scholars like Ian Wilson surmised this cloth was not just an image of the face of Jesus but the real, whole shroud folded in four so that only the face was visible, maybe to hide that this was a dead man’s shroud and thus to hide its being unclean. G63

The Mandylion had a great effect on art. For whereas in previous centuries various pictures of Christ could show him as well bearded as not, from the sixth and seventh centuries on, European representations seem to converge to the same image of a Christ with long black hair and long beard as seen in the Mandylion.

The ‘Golden Legend’ contains a story that reminds of Abgar and Edessa. The story tells that Abgar had sent a letter to Jesus to ask him to be cured from an illness. But Jesus answered that he would not come for it was written that those who saw him would not believe and that those who did not see Jesus believed. Abgar realised he was not to see Jesus face to face, so he sent a painter to Jesus to make a portrait of the Lord. But when the artist came to Jesus, the radiance of the Lord’s countenance was so intense that he could not see the face clearly so that he could not make the portrait as ordered. Seeing this, Jesus took a linen cloth that had belonged to the artist and pressed it to his face, leaving his image imprinted upon it. This imprint was sent to Abgar G49 . The ‘Golden Legend’ said that the portrait showed the Lord as having fine eyes and a fine brow, a long face slightly tilted forward, which ‘ is a sign of maturity’. John of Damascus testified this story according to the ‘Golden Legend’. The legends of the town of Edessa having a portrait of Jesus are thus very old and consistent. The chronicler Evagrius worked around 590 and he told that the mandylion was used to repel a Persian army in 544. The ‘Golden Legend’ however does not further testify to the existence of the shroud. It makes no reference to the place where the shroud had been preserved together with many other relics, that is Constantinople.

A Byzantine army struck around the year 1000 to the thriving pilgrimage site of Edessa and only spared the town and region by recuperating the Mandylion. The image was taken to Byzantium-Constantinople to become one of the main relics of the Eastern Roman empire. The Mandylion supposedly was the shroud that was well guarded by the emperors, and only shown to the people of Constantinople in times of great distress in order to encourage them. The relic was guarded with many other famous relics in the Pharos chapel of the Blachernae palace of the emperors G62 . A French knight, Robert de Clary, wrote he had seen this relic in Constantinople in the beginning of the thirteenth century. The city was considered to be impregnable as long as the Mandylion was in the city.

Constantinople was the place of another legend connected to a shroud. Gregory the Great was a saint, one of the four western Church fathers, one of the seven deacons of Rome, a founder of monasteries and an ambassador of the Popes to Byzantium. He became Pope himself in the middle of an epidemic of the plague in Rome. He was a remarkable man. He installed the Gregorian music style of chant. Gregory took the lead in the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons. He lived from around 540 to 604. The Empress Constantia asked a famous relic of Gregory and he gave her the Brandeum, or shroud, of John the Evangelist. The Empress rejected this gift as not being authentic. But Gregory pierced the cloth with a knife and the relic started to bleed G41 . The legends of the Brandeum and of the Mandylion may have crossed.

In 1203 crusaders took Constantinople and plundered the city. Treasures were shipped to France and to Venice. The Mandylion disappeared without a trace. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince have found traces of adoration of symbols by the Templar Knights of France, which could lead to the Mandylion G62 . They wrote that the widow of a crusader called Boniface De Montferrat might have taken the shroud to Western Europe. This widow, Mary-Margaret of Hungary, had been an Empress of Constantinople since she had also been the widow of the former and deposed Byzantine Emperor Isaac II. The Templar knights may have kept the shroud in secret. One of the last Templar Knights to be killed in France when the order was abolished was one Geoffrey de Charney. There may be a coincidence of names, but around 1355 a shroud, which was supposed to be the real relic of Jesus’s Entombment appeared in Lirey in France, in the castle of one Geoffrey de Charny.

The shroud, now showing a full body in front and back image, was exhibited in public. But the bishop Pierre d’Arcis, bishop of Troyes, refused it in 1389 and denounced it as a fraud. The bishop’s letter is the first authentic witness of the modern shroud. From then on starts the known history of the Holy Shroud, as we know it. Geoffrey de Charny’s daughter Margaret who had inherited the shroud took the relic out of Lirey Church and guarded it with her husband Humbert de la Roche-Villersexel G2 . In 1464 she handed over the shroud to the Dukes of Savoy. The shroud disappeared for about fifty years and reappeared in 1494 when it was exhibited again and kept in the Chapel of Chambéry, the capital of the Savoy family. This lapse of time during which the shroud disappeared from public view induced Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince to believe the painted shroud was substituted by another more believable shroud. This new shroud had an imprint, which could have been produced by an ingenious early photographic process invented by Leonardo da Vinci.

The shroud lay in the Chambéry Church that was given the name of ‘Sainte Chapelle’ by Pope Julius II. But the church burned down in 1532. The shroud was saved however. It lay protected in a silver casket but drops of incandescent, molten silver fell on the cloth and put it to fire. The Poor Clare Nuns of Chambéry repaired the burnholes and these holes and the repairs can be seen presently in the shroud. The Savoy family, heirs of the ancient kingdom of Burgundy, acquired more lands and gradually became more powerful in the North of Italy. They brought the shroud to their new capital, Turin, in 1578. In 1694 it was placed in a new silver shrine and displayed in the Royal Chapel of Turin cathedral. This chapel was damaged by fire in April 1997, but the shroud was once more rescued from the flames. Currently the casket with the shroud is behind bullet-safe glass set in a mobile block in the middle of Turin cathedral.

The shroud was almost forgotten as a relic in the nineteenth century and the outlines of Jesus’s face were indeed very faded. The clergy of Turin wanted the shroud to be archived but had a last picture made in 1898 by an amateur photographer, a lawyer of Turin, called Secondo Pia. This photographer found that the head was impregnated as if in negative on the shroud. The negative effect showed in Pia’ photos many details of the image much clearer. It remains one of the puzzling effects of the Turin shroud that the photos revealed details that had remained hidden for centuries. The controversy on whether the Shroud of Turin was a legend or not started then for good and several research institutions in Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States work still today at unravelling the true origins of the relic.

In 1988 a scientific committee took samples of the cloth and sent these to three independent laboratories for Carbon-14 dating. The Carbon-14 dating proved the cloth to have originated with 95% certainty from a period dating between 1260 and 1390, which is very consistent with the first historical appearance of the shroud, but various other scholars have contested the Carbon-14 dating. A Swiss criminologist, Doctor Max Frei had already taken samples of strips of the shroud in 1973 and indeed found pollen of Palestine, of middle Turkey, of Constantinople and of France in the shroud. These scientific results have been criticised however since no research was done to find pollen of other regions on the cloth and the cloth may have received of course all pollens during the centuries it has been preserved. An American shroud investigator, John Jackson, claims that there are marks of a Jewish prayer band on the imprint of the head and on the eyes he seems to have discovered images of coins. Francis Filas, a Jesuit theologian from Chicago has recognised on the coins the initials of the Roman emperor Tiberius who was emperor in Jesus’s times. These findings also have been drawn into doubt. All scientific findings thus have been contested.

The shroud of Turin is not the only image that could claim to be the Mandylion. One image that originated from Charlemagne was in the Sainte Chapelle of Paris. This shroud was destroyed during the French Revolution. Another one is in the Barnabite Monastery of the church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni in Genoa. Emperor John V of Byzantium gave this last picture to Leonardo Montaldo, the Captain of a Genoese colony on the Bosphorus and hence it passed to the Monastery in 1384 U11 . Various other shrouds may have existed and preserved in France, some of which could have been painted images, in Cadouin and Compiègne. A copy of the shroud of Turin is in Lier in Belgium.

The Turin Shroud shows a man apparently crucified, with wounds in the wrists. This is remarkable for if the shroud is indeed a fraud; this detail is entirely in contradiction with all images of the Crucifixion until the seventeenth century. Antonella da Messina, Fra Angelico, Carlo Crivelli, Pietro Perugino, all major painters of the fifteenth century made Crucifixions with Jesus’s palms pierced with the nails. None made pictures of nails going through the wrists. Early sixteenth century painters like Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini continued this tradition. French artists like Nicolas Tournier and Spanish painters like El Greco still pictured Jesus’s wounds like this at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. One of the first famous painters to depict Jesus on the cross with nails through the wrists was Pieter Paul Rubens and that may have been through the influence of the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) whose book ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ was published in Rubens’ Antwerp in 1543. Vesalius was a generation before Rubens (born in 1577), but Rubens may have known Vesalius’ book.

Is the Turin Shroud legend or truth? In any case, the story of the Mandylion and of the Shroud of Turin remains extraordinary and if indeed true would make of the Turin shroud probably the single most important testimony of Jesus Christ since it would show us Jesus’s true features. It is remarkable how legends and facts intertwine to keep the mystery around the Turin Shroud very real for many believers despite the Carbon-14 dating. The study and research of the shroud continue.

Robert Campin

Robert Campin was born around 1379 and very little is known about him except that he worked in the town of Tournai, in the Hainaut province of Belgium. He worked for the court of the Dukes of Burgundy. We have a remarkably realistic painting made by him of Robert de Masmines, counsellor and army leader of the Dukes of Burgundy John without Fear and Philip the Good.

The triptych of Campin is a very early masterpiece of Flemish painting. Nothing is known about its history U4 . The donor is kneeling and praying on the left panel. He was probably a wealthy merchant of Tournai. He has a monk’s cloak over his rich robe. In the background, the two thieves still hang on their crosses, contorted in agonies of death. Jesus’s cross is empty. A ladder still stands to the cross to signify that the descent from the cross has only just happened. One can admire a very realistic landscape of green fields and bushes, leaves meticulously indicated. This is probably one of the very first landscapes in the new oil painting that started early in the fifteenth century in Flanders.

The middle panel of the triptych is the ‘Entombment’. Jesus is lying on the sarcophagus, his wounds still bleeding. Mary, his mother, leans over him to a last kiss. Saint John, the beloved of Christ, supports her. Joseph of Arimathea on the left and Nicodemus on the right hold the body. These two saints are often shown on entombments. Mary Magdalene kneels to the right and anoints the feet of Jesus. Another woman holds the white linen in which Jesus’s body will be enveloped. Still another woman in blue cloak and white cape can be seen between Saint John and Joseph of Arimathea. Look specifically at this figure: Rogier Van Der Weyden, who was Campin’s pupil, has used exactly the same head cape in some of his paintings, the same blue cloak and white cape. The folds of the linen and the folds of the robes of all figures are magnificently painted to the finest detail. All the figures surround Jesus, who thus becomes the centre of all attention. In order to fill the frame horizontally and completely, an angel stands grieving to the right and another on the left. The left angel holds the lance with which Jesus was pierced while on the cross, and he looks directly at the donor on the other panel. The right angel holds the long stick with the sponge of vinegar. Angels in the sky hold the instruments of Jesus’s passion: the crown of thorns and the nails of the cross. These angels also are dressed in luxurious robes, painted in magnificent folds. The landscape on the left is to the same height as the personages on the middle panel. The scene is set in the same landscape. A small grapevine and grapes in the lower middle indicate the Eucharist, the Sacrament that gives eternal life.

The wattle fence of the left panel and the green landscape continue into the right panel, where Jesus stands up from the tomb. He wears the symbol of the Holy Cross and of the Resurrection, and he makes a blessing sign to the stricken guardians. Shields, helmets, robes and a still sleeping guardian lie on the grass. To make the whole even more and naively realistic, a small white dog is painted both on the left and the right panel.

We admire more the professionalism of the painter in this work than his art. The painting is certainly imposing to look at by the realism of its details, the sophistication of the grouping of persons and the craft with which the painter has shown the robes in all its folds and magnificent colours. The colours are applied with diligence in the middle panel: the red robe of the kneeling woman who has her back turned towards us is mirrored in the red robe of Saint John. The headdress of Mary Magdalene answers the yellow-brown robe of Joseph of Arimathea. The lines connecting these two colour areas cross over the body of Jesus. The wide robes of the kneeling woman in red and of Mary Magdalene form the counter-weight to the mass of people painted higher, over Jesus. These colour masses draw the scene back to earth, together with the white mass of the sarcophagus. A red cloak thrown over the donor’s shoulders and the red cloak of the resurrected Jesus on the left panel are in symmetry with the red robe of the middle. Finally, also the masses in the skies are balanced: on the left panel by the two thieves, in the middle panel by the red and blue clothed angels, on the right by the bushes of the landscape that rise here higher than in the other panels.

Gothic painters like Campin kept their symmetries and structure well in check. Medieval philosophy saw heavenly design in the entire universe, all was balanced and ordained, and this spirit continued in medieval imagery.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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