Where? Room 12 of the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? The Vittrici (or Vittrice) family, probably Gerolamo Vittrici or his son Alessandro Vittrici.
What do you see? This painting shows five people in the middle of the night and the lifeless body of Jesus. Notice that the body of Jesus is clean and there is no blood, although you can see a wound in his side. The chest and arm of Jesus are pale indicating that he has died already. The people are standing on top of a big stone at the entrance of the tomb where Jesus would be lowered down and buried.
The person on the right in the brown robe is Nicodemus. He is holding the knees of Jesus and looks into the direction where the body of Jesus would be placed. On the other side, a young Saint John, who can be identified by his red cloth, is putting an arm under the shoulders of Jesus. Behind Nicodemus are three women who express their emotions in different ways. One raises her hands in the air (it is not clear which Mary this is), the other is crying and drying her tears (this may be Mary Magdalene), and the third is the old Virgin Mary who is looking sadly at the body of Jesus. Above the head of Jesus, you can see the hand of the Virgin Mary.
In the left foreground, you can see a great mullein plant, which is a symbol of driving away evil spirits. Finally, notice that Caravaggio chose for a black background without any landscape or architecture, which makes us focus completely on the figures in the foreground.
Backstory: This painting served as an altarpiece in one of the Chapels (the Cappella della Pietà) in the Santa Maria in Vallicella church (also known as the Chiesa Nuova) in Rome. In 1797, this painting was removed from the church by Napoleon, but around 1816 it returned to Rome to hang in the Vatican Museums. Several well-known artists, including Cézanne, Gericault, and Rubens, have used this painting as an example for their own work, often with some modifications.
A replica of this painting is in the Chiesa Nuova. A version of Rubens is quite similar to the original by Caravaggio. This painting is now in the National Gallery of Canada. However, there are some differences between the two paintings, such as Saint John already stepping down with one foot into the grave. Another difference is that Rubens has replaced Nicodemus by Joseph of Arimathea.
The Santa Maria in Vallicella church: This church is also called the Chiesa Nuova. It is located in Rome next to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. This is the main church for the Oratorians. This is a community of secular priests recognized by the Pope and the members of the community are not bound by vows but bound by a voluntary bond of charity. The church is richly decorated with gold, frescos, paintings, and altarpieces. The church got into serious disrepair during the 19th century, but in 2006 a major restoration was completed. Nowadays, the church is still in active use.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Milan and grew up in Caravaggio (which is where his name comes from). He was a brilliant painter, but he led a troubled life. After some incidents with the police, he fled Milan in 1592 and moved to Rome. Typical for his work is that he incorporated a realistic depiction of the physical and emotional state of his subjects.
He painted a variety of different works, including religious paintings, mythological paintings, still lifes, and self-portraits. Besides the painting on the entombment, Death of the Virgin in the Louvre is another example of a great religious work by Caravaggio. An example of a great mythological painting is his work of Bacchus in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: The painting is quite dark. While this was the intention of Caravaggio and may partly be due to the exposure to light over time, Caravaggio also took the place where the painting would be placed into account when choosing the colors he used for the painting. He considered both how the light would fall on the painting and the height at which the painting would be placed. So, when removing his paintings from their intended location, the quality of his works sometimes seems to be worse than if it would have stayed in its intended place.
To fully appreciate this painting, one should attend the mass in the Chiesa Nuova where a replica of this painting hangs on its original location. The painting hangs about five feet above the altar step, which is at eye-level for the priest when the body of Christ is remembered during the mass. The attendees to the mass would look up to this painting.
Written by Eelco Kappe