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Friday, April 18, 2014

Dark days

Descent from the Cross, 1616-17, Peter Paul Rubens.
Today and tomorrow, you may notice that your devout Christian friends seem weary and drawn as they deal with the most difficult two days in the Liturgical Year. Yeah, they’re grocery shopping.

That and pondering the stark reality of what Good Friday and Holy Saturday represent—that moment when Jesus was dead and it appeared that his final gambit failed. It doesn’t take much for the honest Christian to stand in the disciples’ shoes, for we have all doubted our faith.

The first comic book artist was Peter Paul Rubens, who could invest even death with great motion and drama. He painted several Depositions, and they would be difficult for a modern artist to mimic, since most of us have never seen a dead body that hasn’t been propped up with embalming and makeup.

Note the beautiful juxtapositions in the top painting: John the Baptist’s face pressed against Jesus’ wounds, a limp, bloody hand in that of a swarthy and lively young man; the other blue hand being held against the fair pink cheek of Mary Magdelene, the dead Christ’s face next to his grieving mother’s face.

Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, Peter Paul Rubens.
Rubens based this painting closely on an earlier version, above, reversing the composition and changing up some figures. But something radical also changed. The earlier painting is pure Baroque religious styling: Christ is idealized, and his handlers touch him with the reverence due the Eucharist. In the later painting, he is a dead man being brought down from the cross by his friends.

The Deposition, 1545, Daniele da Volterra.
A very different treatment is Daniele da Volterra’s fresco of the deposition. Yes, he was working from drawings by Michelangelo and, yes, he’s a Mannerist, but there’s still something very compelling about that dead Christ jutting out in space toward us.

Daniele suffered from his association with Michelangelo: after the master’s death, he was the poor unfortunate assigned the job of adding loincloths to The Last Judgment. Henceforth he would be nicknamed Il Braghettone, or the breeches-maker.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

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