Art Notes: The Entombment of Christ

Authored by Paula Thelen in Issue #35.3 of The Sower

While one often learns about a person’s character from letters with friends and biographies written by contemporaries, much of Caravaggio’s life is known only from police records. Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio after his small Italian birthplace, was born a week before the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when Muslim invaders were driven out of Christendom. Orphaned by age 13, when the Bubonic Plague had claimed every member of his family, he became a wanderer on the streets, searching for purpose. The painter traded his fair share of threats and insults, smashed plates in restaurants, and often found himself in a squabble with gangs and vagabonds he encountered. Some say the man slept in his clothes with a dagger at hand. Yet he clearly possessed a fascination with the transcendent, the Christian mystery in particular, as seen in his paintings depicting the life of Christ and his apostles. The sacred and the profane shared an intimate dance in Caravaggio’s life and in his artwork.

The Entombment of Christ was originally painted as the altarpiece of the Chiesa Nuova, St. Philip Neri's church in Rome. This 17th century masterpiece serves as a dramatic depiction of human grief and sorrow, yet an equally poignant reminder of human hope in everlasting life. Notice that there is no background, no landscape or cityscape to catch your eye, but rather the artist longs to draw you into the scene at the front, using a type of spotlight effect. It seems that Caravaggio is depicting on canvas through his tenebroso what the evangelist St. John writes so eloquently: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5).

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