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Pontormo, Entombment (or Deposition from the Cross), oil on panel, 1525-28 (Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano music) Beth: We've just walked into the church of Santa Felicità. We're looking into the chapel, just to the right of the entrance, where we see Pontormo's great altarpiece. Well, it's either an entombment or a deposition. Steven: It's kind of a funny situation because the painting is clearly in the early mannerist style, and yet the chapel is a small, perfectly cubic space that was designed by Brunelleschi and is very much in the early Renaissance style, so there's this funny contrast. Also, the frescoes to the right by Pontormo show the Enunciation. That's a powerful [combination] because you have this moment of Gabriel coming to announce to the virgin Mary that she will bear Christ, and then this much more mournful scene much later, when Christ has been lowered from the cross, is about to be entombed, and Mary is mourning his death. They function as almost the beginning and end of Christ's earthly existence. Beth: And above that in the pendentives, we see roundels, also by Pontormo, showing the four evangelists. Steven: I think that this notion of whether or not it's an entombment or a deposition is the result of the fact that Pontormo has taken out many of the symbols that we would expect in either of those scenes. The cross is gone, the tomb is not apparent. What's here instead is a very spare image of figures, and really nothing but figures, with the exception, perhaps, of a little bit of ground and some clouds above. Beth: If this was a deposition, we would expect to see a ladder, the lowering of the body of Christ from the cross. If this were an entombment, we would expect, as you said, to see the tomb. Pontormo has given us nothing to help understand the subject. He's also not situated it in any kind of an earthly space that's understandable, which is such a difference from the style of the high Renaissance, where providing an earthly setting for the figures was so important, including using linear perspective. Steven: That's right, and this is almost a rejection of that earthliness. The figures are highly stylized, and there is a kind of elegance. Beth: And look at the two figures on either side, how elongated their bodies are, and that figure in the left foreground. Look at his legs. They're not really in any natural position. Steven: No, it's almost like dance, actually. Beth: We also think about the high Renaissance in terms of a pyramid composition and of stability and balance, and here, there's a sense almost of things moving in lots of different directions at once. If you think about Leonardo's Last Supper, where the artist so clearly draws our eye to the vanishing point, with Pontormo, it feels like there's really no place for our eye to rest. Steven: This is to my eye a composition that is full of constant movement. Beth: We also expect in the high Renaissance to see figures who have a sense of weight to their bodies. Pontormo is disregarding so many of those things. Look at the figure of Christ, the figures who support him. Steven: Especially that crouching figure. Beth: They're on their tippy-toes. They can't possibly support him in that way. Mary looks like she's about to faint. There's something overwrought in the emotions that the figures display. Steven: It seems to me that these are not so much the emotions of a person so much as symbols of emotions, almost like masks. Beth: And that sense of masking of artificiality, of an art that's not based on nature is really typical of mannerism, and I think it's really important to remember that we're here in Florence, and Florence is no longer a republic. There are also other historical considerations like the Protestant Reformation and Copernicus discovering that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Steven: So this was a period of real revolution, and especially so in Florence. I think that issue of the Medicis' return and they're abolishing the Republic is crucial, and of course the challenge that Martin Luther is posing. Beth: Right. Beth: Some people have seen the mannerist style as like a style that expresses a new spirituality as opposed to the naturalism of the early Renaissance and that spirituality coming from the attacks on the Church by Martin Luther. Steven: It'll be really interesting to see how, over the next hundred years, the Counter-Reformation really causes significant shifts in the style of art and breaks with Renaissance conventions. We're beginning to see here just the first taste of those changes. (piano music)