The Entombment of Christ (1601-3) by Caravaggio
Interpretation of Baroque Biblical Painting

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The Entombment of Christ.
By Caravaggio.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Entombment of Christ (1601-3)


Explanation of More Paintings by Caravaggio


Name: The Entombment of Christ (Deposizione) (1601-3)
Artist: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting (religious)
Movement: Baroque painting
Location: Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome

For an explanation of other important pictures from the Baroque era, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of pictures by
Biblical painters like
Caravaggio, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio

Caravaggio ranks alongside the best artists of all time because of his ultra-naturalist approach to Baroque art - involving realistic images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and prophets - which marked a fundamental change from the more idealistic Mannerist painting and did much to counter the re-packaged High Renaissance art of Annibale Carracci and his followers. See also: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting (1600-1700).

Caravaggio's new naturalism was precisely what the Council of Trent had intended back in the 1550s when it demanded a new form of Catholic Counter-Reformation art that ordinary people could understand and be inspired by. But many conservative Vatican officials found it too crude, and sometimes too disrespectful, to be installed in a church. Undeterred, Caravaggio continued to paint dramatic scenes with real people "warts and all". He demonstrated complete mastery of light and dark, using the technique of chiaroscuro to add volume to his figures and tenebrism to inject his pictures with real drama. Later, this style of 'Caravaggism' would be copied by some of the great Old Masters, like Rubens (1577-1640), Rembrandt (1606-69) and Vermeer (1632-1675). Despite his well-earned notoriety as an "evil genius", Caravaggio was unquestionably the greatest of all Italian Baroque artists of the early 17th century. See also: Caravaggio's Visits to Naples (1607-10).

The Entombment of Christ - Caravaggio's most monumental and admired altarpiece - was painted for the chapel of the Pietà in the Chiesa Nuova, the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome, which was built for the congregation of priests, founded in 1561 by Saint Philip Neri. The artist received the original commission from Alessandro Vittrice in 1601, not long after completing The Conversion of St Paul on the way to Damascus (1601) and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) for the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. He completed it two years later. The original is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museums, while a copy hangs in the Capella della Pietà. The painting was universally admired by contemporary art critics such as Giulio Mancini (1559-1630), Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) and Gian Pietro Bellori (1613-96) - author of the celebrated Lives of the Artists (Vite de'Pittori, Scultori et Architetti Moderni, 1672).

The painting consists of a tightly compact figurative group consisting of six people, including the dead Christ. The upper half of Christ's body (that of a muscular labourer) is being supported by John the Evangelist (in the red cloak) (or possibly Joseph of Arimathea), his right hand inadvertently fingering Christ's stab wound; the lower half is carried supported by Saint Nicodemus, who traditionally removed the nails from Christ's feet on the cross. Nicodemus is the dominant character in the picture and his body is its compositional and spiritual anchor. Historically a man of wealth, he is portrayed here as a working man, whose deliberately designed troll-like form suggests devoted service to his deceased Lord. He stares unflinchingly at us out of the picture-plane, almost challenging us to interfere with the ritual, and in the process drawing us into the picture.

Behind the two men, the three women are grouped in a fan-like shape. They include (left to right): the partly obscured Virgin Mary, depicted here as an elderly nun, who extends her arms horizontally in a picture-wide blessing and acceptance of what has happened; in the centre, face shadowed, is Mary Magdalene, the female follower of Jesus, who dries her tears with a white handkerchief; on the right is the wailing Mary of Clopas, sister of the Virgin Mary, who raises her arms to heaven. She is highly reminiscent of his earlier Mary in Conversion of the Magdalene (1598, Detroit Institute of Art), who was based on the 22-year old model Fillide Melandroni.



The five mourners are standing on a flat stone slab (previously thought to be a lid to a tomb), which probably represents the Stone of Unction, where Christ's body was anointed with oil and wrapped in a linen shroud, as described in the Gospel of John.

As usual, Caravaggio tries to capture a precise moment during the action. In this case, he depicts the moment just before the two men lower him into the tomb. In a few seconds he will be gone and the mourners will be on their own.

Some commentators claim that Caravaggio borrowed elements from the Lamentation of Christ (1460-3, Uffizi, Florence) by Roger van der Weyden, the Deposition (1507, Galleria Borghese, Rome) by Raphael, and the Florentine Pietà (1547-53, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, Florence) by Michelangelo. However the similarities are unclear and in any case Caravaggio's Entombment is a distinct, independent and (arguably) far superior work.

Compositionally, the painting is based around a diagonal pattern of form and movement, from the hysterical hands of Mary Clopas (top right), down through Mary Magdalene's sagging shoulder, Nicodemus's elbow and Christ's torso, to the end of the white shroud (bottom left).

The fan-shaped pattern - upright Mary Clopas, forward-leaning Mary Magdalene, arched Nicodemus and horizontal Christ - presents us with a cascade of limbs and heads that adds tension and movement to an essentially 'frozen' snapshot in time. Interestingly, the picture becomes quieter as our eye moves from top to bottom.

It is possible to read the picture as an allegory of life and death. At the top we have living people. At the bottom, the tomb and death. In the middle, acting as a barrier between the two, is Jesus Christ. It illustrates the Catholic dogma that, only by having faith in Christ can we avoid death and ascend into heaven.

One small detail is worth mentioning. In the bottom left of the painting is a plant known as Verbascum thapsus, common name mullein. Believed to possess medicinal properties and to ward off evil spirits, it symbolizes the coming resurrection and the triumph over death. Caravaggio also included it in his Saint John the Baptist (1604, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1586, the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome).

Caravaggio's Entombment inspired many other works, including most notably: The "Entombment of Christ" (c.1608, Charcoal and white chalk, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) by Guy Francois (1578-1650); and "The Entombment" (1612, National Gallery of Canada) by Peter Paul Rubens.

Within three years of completing the Entombment, Caravaggio fled Rome and sought sanctuary in Naples, following a brawl in which he killed a man. Four years later he was dead. For more about his work in the south of Italy, see: Caravaggio in Naples (1607-10) and Neapolitan School of Painting.

Explanation of More Paintings by Caravaggio

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.

Supper at Emmaus (1601)
National Gallery, London.

Death of the Virgin (1601-6)
Louvre, Paris.

Amor Vincit Omnia (Victorious Cupid) (1602)
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


• For an explanation of other Baroque paintings, see: Homepage.

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