On the right hand panel of the triptych, Christ is taken down from the cross. The stark, empty form appears against the sky, which is partially clouded, as we witness the gradual emptying of the top half of the painting. A ladder leans against the cross, one man climbing down, lowering the lifeless form as he goes. Another, probably Joseph of Arimathea, holds the body, as if he is showing it to us, like a monstrance but with the body itself rather than the consecrated host (which is, of course believed by some to be the body itself). At Jesus’s feet Mary Magdalene and another man, probably Nicodemus, play their part. The Virgin Mary kneels at the foot of the ladder. On reflection I have little doubt about this. The other day I forgot to mention that, in the foreground, we can see that Mary does wear a red/pink dress under her blue – which would explain the pink sleeves, not seen elsewhere, but which are revealed at the foot of the ladder.
From this point a diagonal sweeps downwards towards the holy woman who is reaching out to Jesus, a gesture which seems to beseech, to indicate and to welcome. It is as if she is inviting the kneeling Virgin to join them in their sorrow, which indeed she has. Kneeling down at the same angle as this woman, John tilts his head towards the other representation of the Mother of Christ, who here is helpless in her grief. A woman, in white, but wrapped in rich red, angled outwards, a little like the donor, puts her hand to her chest, .
To me – and this is pure hypothesis – the striking downward diagonal of the composition suggests the continued movement of Jesus’s body towards the beseeching arms of the holy woman. There is a little space at the Virgin’s feet. Maybe we are supposed to imagine his body being carried there, and placed before the mourners, allowing the lamentation to continue as in many other paintings and sculptures. Maybe we are then supposed to imagine it being lowered, still further, into the hands of the priest who has elevated the host during the Mass, and will then turn to the congregation with the body of Christ – the consecrated host, the body itself – as part of the liturgy.
But this is as far as it goes. One of the curious features of this painting, as far as I am concerned, is that there is no image of the resurrection, no hint, even, of the tomb, empty or otherwise. I can only suppose that, elsewhere in the convent, nearby, there was another altarpiece dealing with the entombment, the resurrection and the subsequent events leading up to the ascension of Christ, and to Pentecost. What little has been attributed to the Master of Delft, though, doesn’t include these later episodes, so it probably wasn’t by him. However, I will include some of them, as painted by Giotto, in a free talk entitled Painting the Passion with Passion, which I am delivering for the Churches Conservation Trust at 1pm today, Thursday 1 April. It will be on their Facebook page, and a recording will be posted later on their YouTube channel – I’ll let you know about that when it happens. But as it is not yet Easter, I will continue this Lenten series on Saturday in Florence. No words tomorrow – just images. I do hope you have a calm and peaceful day.