|Perugino - The Entombment|
For the first time it lies before their eyes at its full length; for the first time not only the five open wounds, the livid marks of the whips, of the cords which bound Him to the pillar, are visible at one glance, but the wasting from the bloody sweat, the scourging, the crucifixion, the absolute fast from the hour of the Last Supper,—all like a repetition of the scenes in Gethsemane, in Pilate's hall, along the Via Crucis, the nailing to the cross, the three hours' dying, and this one instant opens anew the floodgates of Mary's sorrow, of all those who surround her, of all who are taking part in this last act of love for the dead. "They shall look upon Him whom they have pierced; they shall mourn for Him as one mourneth for the death of the first-born," in this moment is fulfilled; and He who had wept at the tomb of Lazarus suffers these dear ones to pour out their anguish like rivers of water. He who groaned at the tomb before He said, " Lazarus, come forth ! " allows their sobs and their cries to testify to their grief for Him. It is the outburst of a grief allowed by the God-Man Himself to the creatures He has created. There has never been a death-bed over which some mourner has not thrown himself in an agony of tears; and it must not be denied to the tenderest of all mothers, to the heart, broken, as no other heart has been, or can be, or to her companions.
As the crowds had dispersed from Mount Calvary ; still later, as the centurion, who had attended only to the taking down of the bodies of the two thieves and their burial, leaving the entombment of Jesus of Nazareth to His two noble friends of the Sanhedrim, left the scene of death with his staff,—one by one the disciples, and even Apostles, who had fled out of fear of being arrested as the followers of the Nazarene, return to the Mount, clustering around the scene of death. Swiftly Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus do their work; for the stars must not shine over Jerusalem, ushering in the Sabbath, until they have laid the Victim of that cruel day in His tomb. With skilled hands they spread the myrrh and precious spices over the body, here and there closing some bleeding gash, wrapping tightly the linen lengths around the body, the limbs; swathing them as the manner of the Jews was to bury. And as the deep blood stains come through the linen folds, they repeat to themselves Isaiah's exclamation : " Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this Beautiful One in His robe ? . . . Why is Thy apparel red, and Thy garments like theirs that tread in the wine-press?" Adding in the sorrow of their souls: " Truly He has trodden the wine-press alone, and of all who have followed Him there has been none to help."
The last fold has been given: Jesus is ready for His tomb. But "where will they lay Him ? " some ask of one another. Even Mary says in her bruised heart: "Where will they lay my precious One ?" But Joseph of Arimathea knows of the garden close by the place of skulls where the divine tragedy has been enacted; for in that garden he has had hewn out for himself a new sepulchre, in which no one has ever lain. Toward this sepulchre, then, the little procession takes its way ; Joseph of Arimathea, as its leader, with Nicodemus and Saint John ; and those disciples, who have returned to see what would be done with Jesus, are only too favored, they believe, to be allowed to take on their arms, and even shoulders, the lifeless form of the Master they love even in the midst of their cowardice. The long twilight of the approaching Paschal time favors the hasty arrangements, and before the first star has glinted in the blue sky, Jesus has been laid in the narrow bed of stone which Joseph of Arimathea had hewn out for himself in the spacious tomb; then, laying over it a slab, and rolling a heavy stone to the door of the sepulchre, they leave the Lord of Life to His place among the dead.
The baldness of the written narrative was supplied, from the first, by the oral narrative; the wealth of details, not only, as must have been, from the Blessed Virgin herself, Saint Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Salome, but from the retentive memory of the Beloved Disciple, whose Gospel must have seemed to him, and to those few of his contemporaries who read it—for it was the last of the Four Gospels that was written,—meagre beyond all things, when Saint John had so much to say, had they not come into the beautiful inheritance of the oral tradition, which quickened the meagre word and filled all the empty spaces. These traditions have never died out of the memory of the faithful, and Art took early possession of them as her birthright.
Cimabue learned from his Greek masters all the Byzantine traditions, and he gives us a veritable " Pieta ; " but leaves to Giotto the enshrouding of the body of Jesus, or the laying Him in His winding-sheet. In Cimabue's u Pieta," the lordly citizen of Florence, whose Madonna in Santa Maria Novella is a daughter of the royal House of David, loses himself utterly in the expressions of grief which he has given to the Blessed Virgin herself and her holy companions ; and Giotto, at Padua, where we see the dead Christ laid on His winding-sheet, makes no scruple of giving vent to the most pathetic and, in some of the personages, the wildest expressions of grief. But leaving those artists who, like Mantegna, expressed the natural, rather than the supernatural, sorrow of this moment, we come to Perugino, whose Entombment, as it is called, portrays the very scene we have in mind with a pathos, and altogether a perfection of sentiment which leaves us nothing to desire.
The dead Christ has just been laid, on His winding-sheet in a half-reclining position. Saint Joseph of Arimathea, on his knees, supporting the body under the arms with the winding-sheet; Saint Mary Magdalene His head ; Nicodemus, on his knee, holding up the winding-sheet under the feet, while the Blessed Virgin holds His left arm on both her hands, looking into His face as if she felt the divine eyes of her Son would open upon her under her sorrowful gaze, although " lying nerveless among the dead." It is Saint Bernard who thus apostrophizes Mary on the Feast of her Dolors, on the Friday of Passion Week: " Did she not know that He was to die ? Yea, without doubt. Did she not hope that He was to rise again ? Yea, she most faithfully hoped it. And did she still mourn because He was crucified ? Yea, bitterly. But who art thou, my brother, or whence hast thou such wisdom, to marvel less that the Son of Mary suffered than that Mary suffered with Him? He could die in the body, and could not she die with Him in her heart ? " And yet, in the First Responsory of- this pathetic office, which is one of the poetic gems of the Roman Breviary, we read : " Maiden and Mother, thou didst look on Him with eyes full of tenderness, and there thou sawest not only that thy Son was smitten, but that the world was saved." All this is in Perugino's Entombment.
Of the beauty of this conception there has been no end of praise. Eastlake, in his History of Our Lord, says : " Perugino's exquisite picture in the Pitti, a work in which there are more beautiful heads than perhaps any other in the world." Of the Saint Mary Magdalene, it was once said to me by a friend whose faith had never compassed the Godhead of the Son of Man : " It is the most pitying face I ever saw." Saint John stands in his grief close to Joseph of Arimathea; Mary of Cleophas raises both her hands in the wonder of her soul over this unheard-of anguish; and still others come into the group without breaking in upon the exaltation of its pathos. A landscape stretches far off, with the towers of Jerusalem between the rocky hills which enclose this scene of scenes. This picture was painted for the nuns of Saint Clara in Florence. Vasari tells us that " Francesco del Pugliese offered the nuns three times as much as they had paid Perugino for the picture, and promised to cause another exactly like it to be executed for them by the same hand; but they would not consent, because Perugino had told them he did not think he could equal the one they possessed."
Fra Bartolommeo, of San Marco, Florence, gives to our Dolor one of his most exquisite conceptions, embodied in the perfection of that technique, of which he was a master. Only the upright "tree of the cross" is visible. At its foot has been laid Him who, " while we were yet sinners, died," " the just for the unjust." Saint John, kneeling, looking out from the picture as if asking the sympathy of an entire world for its Redeemer, sustains the sacred body, his hand placed, reverently, on a fold of the fine linen, brought by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, beneath the arms ; the left one hanging limp, its pierced hand resting on the winding-sheet, spread on the ground, while from the wounded side trickle the last roseate drops of the Precious Blood. Saint Mary Magdalene, in a transport of grief, kneels on the ground, embraces, with both her arms twined around them, those divine limbs with their pierced feet, just detached from the cross, laying her cheek to them with unutterable devotion. But Mary, mother and martyr, kneeling, draws the lifeless head to her breast, breathes over it as a mother breathes over her cherished, her first-born, her only son; breathes words we feel, of loving compassion for all He has suffered, one arm, with its pierced hand, lying on her own motherly, pitying palm; all that is most tender, most gentle in sorrow in her face, in every line of her bending figure, as if saying: " Thou wert very sweet to me, my Son Jesus !"
The literal bearing of Our Lord to His tomb, like the Deposition, has excited the ambition of the most skillful pencils, of the most subtle colorists, the most learned anatomists ; but our dolor is not in every one of these, and we turn to those which have been painted under the inspiration of Our Lady's part in that sad procession.
The one which comes first to mind is Titian's. With all his Venetian sense of the glory of color, the charm of the picturesque, Titian had, deep in his soul, the sound Venetian faith. As a child, he painted Madonnas, tinting Our Lady's mantle with the juice of the pretty blue flower which still grows as commonly as a weed on all the meadows around lovely Cadore, where Titian was born, and so brittle that it stains the garment of the careless pedestrian. The love of our Blessed Lady never left his heart, and when he conceived his Entombment she was one of his first thoughts.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus bear the sacred body on its winding-sheet with worshipful reverence; the eyes of the two senators fixed upon the face of the Master, watchful of the effect of every step which they make; the left hand is pendant, but the right is held by Saint John, who looks toward Mary as she presses forward with clasped hands, the Magdalene at her side folding her in her arms. The liveliest sympathy is expressed among all these personages ; for they seem to have come to the very door of the tomb, and are even bending to make its entrance.
But Titian has given to the lifeless Lord not only the perfection of his brush as to form and tint, but over the bowed head, from which still trickle drops of blood from the wounds given by the crown of thorns, and over the lacerated shoulders, has been thrown a shadow so solemn that He seems to have entered already into the gloom of His sepulchre. Low clouds, such as come at sunset, just tinged with crimson, a jutting point of the hillside with its verdure and crowned with foliage, make the garden background of the picture; the twilight gloom symbolizing the shadows of death. For years we may have this picture near us, and it will never lose its pathetic charm; while Titian gave to it his superb knowledge and his most careful skill as an act of devout love to the sorrows of the Mother and of the Son.
Among those Forty Illustrations of the Four Gospels by Overbeck, to which we so often allude, is the Entombment—the bearing of the dead Christ to that tomb which He again and again predicted for Himself. The stars have not yet appeared, but the deep twilight has come. Light is thrown upon the sacred body, and on the head resting upon the shoulder of a disciple, from the torch held by Nicodemus at the very entrance of the tomb, into which Joseph of Arimathea is already passing, as the host to receive his Guest.
The torch flares upon the head and shoulders of the Master sleeping in death; upon the arm and pierced hand that lie so meekly on the breast; on the pierced feet that still cross each other as on that gibbet of death, resting as the limbs do, upon the shoulder of another disciple. Saint John is seen weeping, in his heart-broken way, above the right shoulder; and following close is the Blessed Virgin, one hand holding her mantle to her breast, the other laid affectionately on the arm of Mary of Bethany. Close to them follow the two other holy women; while over the heads of this sad procession, far out on the hills round about them, mingling with the evening mists, floats the smoke of the torch in a long, slender thread of funereal vapor. To us it is most like what that procession really was, of any limned by any master whatsoever.
But Cimabue at Assisi, Duccio at Siena, have entered that gloomy cavern, wherein is the tomb hewn from a rock, in which no man as yet has been laid. Joseph of Ari-mathea, Nicodemus, Saint John, have laid the body in its last resting-place, the arms straight beside Him, the feet side by side. When Mary bends over Him to give that last kiss which she can bestow upon her dead Son, Cimabue twines her arms around His swathed body; Duccio touches the dead cheek tenderly with her hand as she presses her lips to it; that farewell which has broken hearts from the time Eve pressed her lips to the cheek of the murdered Abel,—murdered, like Mary's son, by his own brother. Through Eve, death had entered into the world, and how bitter must have been her sorrow ' But her womb she has given life in the midst of death, and she says to her Beloved: " Thou art counted with them that go down to the pit, but God will not suffer my Holy One to see corruption."
O Mother of Sorrows, how deep is the night settling over Jerusalem, as, with thy three loving friends and Saint John, thy feet tread the same road trod by thy Jesus, still reddened by His blood, to be lighted up by the round Paschal moon as it rises above the now dark purple hills ! " Her face is swollen with weeping; on her eyelids are the shadows of death;" and she sighs, this maiden and mother: " c He hath made me desolate and faint with sorrow.' Truly 'a bundle of myrrh is my Beloved unto me;' for I bear under my mantle the cruel thorns with which they crowned Thee, in my hands the nails that pierced Thy hands and Thy feet, and in my heart the spear that cleft Thine. Very mournful art Thou to me, O my Son Jesus ! " And we, her children, do we not compassionate her and say, on our bended knees, her Dolors Seven in our heart of hearts :
Had I been there my Lady sweet, I would kiss the printing of Thy feet, O dear, dear Mother Mary!*
* " Returning to Jerusalem." Austin O'Malley.
From The Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary By By Eliza Allen Starr