Lent 39

While there might still be some doubt that it is the Virgin who kneels near the foot of the ladder, there is none that the Magdalene finds her place once more at Christ’s feet, her preferred position, as was mentioned in Lent 32. Unlike other characters, whose costumes change, hers is the same. A red overdress, over a rich cloth of gold brocade, her headdress topped with a white veil, which, although wrapped loosely around her head, no longer flutters in the breeze. Her long red hair still falls on either side of her face, which is pale with sorrow.

Both the Magdalene and Nicodemus were associated with precious ointments, and both were reported as taking them to Christ’s tomb – a piece of circumstantial evidence which I would like to put forward as supporting my identification of the man with his back to us as Nicodemus: the two people who both bring ointments also share a task, and help in carrying Christ’s legs. When seen in this detail, there is a greater idea of the effort involved than was evident before. We can see that Nicodemus’ left leg is braced to take the strain, and his right might also be bent. The extension of the left leg also adds to the movement and structure of this detail, and shows us one of the ways in which the Master of Delft keeps our eyes moving around the painting. Nicodemus’ leg – and indeed his belt – are both angled in roughly the same direction, although by no means on the same alignment, as the diagonal created by Christ’s body. It is probably not a coincidence that his left foot is placed next to the hands of the woman at the bottom left – on the surface of the painting, at least, because, of course, she is considerably closer to us: the visual proximity of her hands and his foot is one of the links the artist makes to direct our attention.

Another way of looking at it is to see her outstretched arms, and her gaze, directed up to the right, as leading our attention into the painting, and towards the lifeless corpse. This line is subtly enhanced by the shadows of Nicodemus’ leg, and then of his body. Were we there in the picture, we could also follow the path alongside him to stand close to Christ: this path, in between the grassy knolls, is part of the same structural element. The other mourning woman, whose head appeared yesterday, looks down – her face pointing downwards along the diagonal described above, while her eyes are at a steeper angle, looking towards what is, undoubtedly, the head of the Virgin Mary. This is why I queried her position at the foot of the ladder: although we know that this is a continuous narrative, for some reason it surprises me that she should be represented twice at this point in the narrative – the Deposition from the Cross, in the first case, and then… well, I suppose we will see tomorrow. And who are the two mourning women? Or, for that matter, the third, whose head appears at the bottom right? I think we will have to leave them all until tomorrow as well.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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