Great Art: The Deposition from the Cross by Pontormo (Interpretation and Analysis)
The Descent from the Cross is one of the most popular subjects in Christian art. It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly every “Old Master” painted at least one image of Christ’s body being removed from the Cross, and it’s easy to understand why the subject was so popular. In addition to its theological significance, the Descent from the Cross offers painters the opportunity to show their skill in creating emotional and visually dramatic art.
There are many fine and interesting depictions of the Descent from the Cross in the Western artistic canon. However, Pontormo’s version, entitled The Deposition from the Cross, stands out.
Pontormo, an Italian painter, was a member of the Mannerist movement, and it certainly shows in this painting. The piece depicts a crowd of pastel-clad mourners carrying the body of Christ and supporting the Virgin Mary, who is swooning at the sight of her son’s dead body. It is a strange approach to the subject. Not only is the color palette unusual and eye-catching (you hardly ever see pastel shades in paintings from this time), the way the painting is organized is also bizarre.
The Descent from the Cross is usually compositionally complex because of the many overlapping figures in unusual poses that the subject requires; Pontormo, however, takes this to an extreme. Christ’s greyish body is the main focal point of the piece in the lower left-hand corner; two men struggle to support the physical and spiritual weight of his body. The Virgin Mary is impossibly tall compared to the other figures in the piece, and the rest of the painting is a chaotic swirl of bodies; it is nearly impossible to see where one figure stops and another begins.
This is partially because there is no sense of three-dimensional space in the painting; the figures seem to occupy a flat (and very crowded) space. Strangely, there is no cross in this painting. Instead, only a single cloud in the sky gives the viewer a sense of landscape. Otherwise, the figures operate in an anonymous space that lacks context for the scene.
Mannerism is an artistic style that revels in weirdness, and consequently Pontormo’s The Deposition from the Cross is one of the weirdest religious paintings I have encountered. However, despite its unconventional style, The Deposition from the Cross remains a highly effective and visually interesting piece of art.