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Pontormo, The Entombment of Christ

Pontormo's altarpiece in Santa Felicita's Capponi Chapel is a unique example of Mannerist art. Rejecting traditional Renaissance elements, it features exaggerated human anatomy and a circular composition. The painting's subject remains debated, with interpretations including Lamentation, Deposition, and Christ being lowered onto the altar. This artwork reflects the changing historical context of Florence in the 1520s. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(bright music) - [Steven] We're in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence. We've just walked in the doorway and immediately to the right is a small burial chapel. - [Beth] This chapel belonged to the Capponi family who acquired it in the 1520s. - [Steven] And they soon hired the artist known as Pontormo to produce its decorative cycle. And this consists of a large altar painting, four rondels, two frescoes on the wall that abuts the facade and a painting in the dome that no longer survives. - [Beth] The altarpiece by Pontormo has long baffled art historians. - [Steven] The artist seems to have removed all the stage props that are traditional in paintings like this. He's left us instead with the human body and capacious cloth. - [Beth] And one cloud. - [Steven] That, and a little bit of steep ground are the only hints that place these figures. - [Beth] But, when we look at this painting in the 1520s, we seem to have moved away from the Renaissance. We don't have an illusion of space. We don't have linear perspective or atmospheric perspective. We don't have bodies that seem to be weighted on the ground. - [Steven] Christ's torso is massive, and yet he seems to be carried with no effort at all by the attendant figure in blue just to his left. - [Beth] And the figure below him who's carrying most of his weight is balanced on his tippy toes. - [Steven] Absolutely impossible, as impossible as his anatomy. - [Beth] Pontormo is playing fast and loose with human anatomy. Something that had been so important for Renaissance artists. - [Steven] Look at his neck, look at the length of his torso. There is an exaggeration that seems to be a kind of rejection of the clarity of High Renaissance naturalism. This painting is often seen as an exemplar of the new mannerist style, built on the naturalism of the High Renaissance, but introducing a dance-like elegance. - [Beth] Mannerism is the style that emerges after the High Renaissance in the 1520s. - [Steven] Unlike high Renaissance painting, which looked to nature as its source, mannerism and Pontormo seemed to be using art itself as its source. In that way, it's highly self-referential. Pontormo's looking back to a Pieta by Botticelli, a painting that likely influenced Michelangelo in his own rendering of the sculpture, the Pieta. And so, although this painting rejects so many of the traditions of the Renaissance, it's also building on those traditions. - [Beth] Christ's body very much recalls Michelangelo's figure of Christ in the Pieta, but instead of that pyramid composition that has that sense of stability, here the composition takes the form of a circle, which means that our eye never really comes to rest and in the center, we see a gesture of a figure holding up a cloth and some hands holding up one of the hands of Christ. These gestures that are hard to interpret that occupy the very center of the composition. - [Steven] Those gestures, though, create an extraordinary sense of elegance, an elegance that we also see in that earlier Botticelli. - [Beth] And we have an entirely different historical context. We have the beginnings of the Reformation in Northern Europe, but also a new context here in Florence, the dismantling of the Republic and the consolidation of Medici rule which will lead to the Medicis becoming the Dukes of Florence. - [Steven] So what is happening here, what is the subject of this painting? Art historians are all over the map. - [Beth] And that's because sometimes we think about this as a Lamentation, that is Christ's followers grieving over his dead body. Sometimes it's been interpreted as a Deposition from the cross, except we don't have a cross and we don't have a ladder. We don't have many of the figures we would normally associate with a Deposition. And so what exactly is going on here? - [Steven] It has been suggested that this is Christ being lowered into the tomb. - [Beth] The tomb which would be basically in this very space of the chapel. - [Steven] Other art historians have suggested that Christ's body is being lifted onto the lap of the Virgin Mary. That is, this is the moment before the Pieta and still other art historians suggest that, perhaps unique in art history, Christ is being lowered onto the table of the alter that exists physically in this small chapel. - [Beth] Luther had called into question, the notion of transubstantiation, the miracle that takes place at every mass when bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. And showing Christ's body being lowered onto the altar is a confirmation of that miracle. Another interpretation is that the figures who look out at us are two angels and they've removed Christ from Mary's lap and are going to elevate his body toward heaven, toward God the father who once appeared in the dome above in a pose, perhaps, that indicated his welcoming of Christ's body. In that case, this subject would be close to a well-known subject called the Throne of Mercy, where God holds the crucified Christ. - [Steven] And if that's correct, we're being asked not to look at this altar painting in isolation, but in a relationship with the fresco that would have been above it. - [Beth] And we've been talking about how its iconography is different than traditional depictions of the Lamentation or the Deposition. We've been talking about the historical context, and we've been talking about the formal properties of how this painting looks. And we've been looking at the context of the chapel itself to tell us about Pontormo and this moment in Florentine painting in the 1520s. (upbeat music)