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Rosso Fiorentino, the Dead Christ with Angels

Rosso Fiorentino, The Dead Christ with Angels, c. 1524-7, oil on panel, 133.4 x 104.1 cm / 52-1/2 x 41 inches (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Male Voiceover: Where do you go after the perfection of the high Renaissance? Female Voiceover: Exactly, if you're an artist in the 1520s, looking back at, for example, Michelangelo's David, or Raphael's frescoes in the Papal Palace, how could art be more perfect than it had been made by Michelangelo and Raphael and Leonardo? Male Voiceover: This style that develops in the courts of Rome immediately after the high Renaissance, a period that we call Mannerism, is defying, in fact, the strictures of that perfection, and is looking towards a kind of virtuosity that has to do with distortion and remaking of form. Female Voiceover: Mannerism is borrowing from the high Renaissance, but as you said, it's changing it and distorting it. Male Voiceover: We can see that in one of the great treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; a painting by Rosso Fiorentino. Female Voiceover: This painting show the dead Christ with angels. Normally we would see much more of an emphasis on Christ's suffering and on the angels mourning the dead body of Christ. It's not unusual in mannerist paintings for us to have elements that are hard to figure out, where the iconography has been changed. He's really minimized the usual clues we have about Christ's suffering; we can't easily see the wounds in Christ's hands or feet, even the wound in His side that Christ recieved while He was on the cross seems devoid of blood. All that is unusual. Normally an artist would present us with those attributes, and really have us meditate on Christ's physical suffering, and we're not given those clues here. Male Voiceover: Even the angels don't seem to be mourning, because they might be in more traditional paintings. You can see Rosso playing fast and loose in a number of different ways in this painting. Not only do you have Christ, this very large figure, in fact, almost too large for the size of this canvas, surrounded by the four angels that seem almost too close, but you have this very indeterminant space pushed very close to the foreground, and you have distortions in the relation of the scale of the bodies. Look at the size, and the mass, and weight of this dead Christ in relationship to those angels in the background. Female Voiceover: Christ seems way too large, almost like he's going to break out of the space that He's in. It's been suggested that there's not so much emphasis on Christ's suffering here, because there's more of an interest in the idea of Christ's resurrection, and perhaps, that idea of Him breaking the bounds of the confines of this canvas suggests that idea. Male Voiceover: Well, certainly the two torches held by the angels are a traditional symbol of the resurrection, so that absolutely works. But Christ is so interesting here because there's a real sensuality to that body. It's a beautiful body, and it's got this elegant curvature to it, and yet, it's also dead and kind of yellow. Female Voiceover: It's not unusual for mannerist artists to make art, make paintings, based on other paintings, and we definitely see that here in the way that Rosso recalls Michelangelo's figures on the Sisitne ceiling. Look at His right thigh, it doesn't make any sense. It's impossibly long, the way that it connects to His hip doesn't seem anatomically plausible, and the length to the knee doesn't seem anatomically plausible. Male Voiceover: Even the other thigh is too large for the torso. Female Voiceover: We have a really hard time figuring out how those feet would carry the weight of this body; in fact, how He's being supported at all. Male Voiceover: So, those distortions that you're talking about, we've seen so much mannerist work, you might think of Parmigianino's The Madonna of the Long Neck, for example. But it's not that this is a mistake, it's that mannerist artists like Rosso were restructuring the body in order to express, not only their virtuosity, but in a sense, to be able to manipulate form as if it was a plastic medium. Female Voiceover: And perhaps to heighten the spirituality of the moment, maybe by exaggerating the body, or by elongating it, or twisting it. There's a sense of transcending the earthly and the physical. Male Voiceover: And stylistically, we can certainly say that mannerist artists transcended the strictures, the perfection of the High Renaissance. (lighthearted music)