The Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin. 6.—The Deposition

The Deposition
Just at the first shout in the streets of Jerusalem from the fierce rabble that apprehended Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the first gathering in the hall of Pilate, at the appearing of Our Lord, crowned with thorns, the reed-sceptre in His hand, on the balcony overlooking the riotous crowd, crying, "Crucify Him! crucify Him!" at the departure of the procession from the door of Pilate's house; all along the Via Cruets to the very summit of Calvary; during the awful darkness of the three hours of agony on the cross, till the death-cry, Consummatum est! rent the veil of the Temple, cleft the rocks, opened the graves around Jerusalem,—two figures moved as silently as shadows through all these scenes, not as participants, but as men whose intelligent eyes read and noted every incident, yet so abstractedly as to escape observation.

These were Joseph of Arimathea, a good and just man, a noble counsellor of the Sanhedrim, privy to all its doings, but without consenting to them ; and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, like Joseph of Arimathea a member of the Sanhedrim, who had come, very early in the three years' ministry, to Jesus by night. Both at heart have been, from the first, disciples of Jesus, but secretly, out of regard to their worldly position. Now, however, as the darkness rolls away from Calvary, these noble souls rise from their abject bondage to Sanhedrim and Synagogue; and when the soldiers come to take down the three bodies from their crosses, Joseph of Arimathea finds the centurion, whose spear had attested the death of Jesus, and whose faith had been born of the death-cry, ready to accede to any request of the noble counsellor, who forthwith presents himself boldly before Pilate and begs the body of Jesus.

Together Joseph and Nicodemus buy fine linen and spices, returning to Calvary, where the centurion and the holy women and Saint John keep watch over the sacred humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. How carefully and how tenderly they place the ladders at the back of the cross ! How gently they ascend, these noble senators, the coarse rounds. Not only how gently, but how reverently ! Not only how reverently, but how worshipfully! And now they actually touch the lifeless body of Jesus—touch it with a feeling like nothing in the world so much as that with which the priest touches the body of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. With an adoring pitifulness they lift the crown of thorns from the bowed head, drawing out the sharp points slowly from the flesh, from the hair matted with blood—never had thorns seemed so cruel,—and lay it into the uplifted hands of Saint John.

Adoringly—they know not how, so firmly are they fixed in the hard wood of the cross, so glued do they seem to the fleshly wounds of the pierced hands,—they draw forth those large, rudely-fashioned, blunt nails, that have bent under the stroke of the hammer, leaving wide open those two wounds, like rings set with jacinths; and thus, half released, the body, gently sustained by Joseph of Arimathea, leans forward till Mary's arms are raised to receive it, while Nicodemus descends and draws out the one dreadful nail on which both sacred feet have borne down through three hours of mortal agony; the wide-open wounds, livid, yet tinged with blood, bringing to mind that word of the psalmist, " They pierced my hands and my feet," when the arms slide, rather than fall, upon Mary's shoulders, and the lifeless lips touch hers, clinging to them with the sweetness of a mother's anguish.

One moment more, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and Saint John bear the body of the Lord in their arms to where Mary is being led by the Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas, to a rock pushing up through the turf, and lay on her knees the still, limp form of her lifeless Son—the one indulgence granted to her motherhood; the same Son whose infant limbs she had wrapped in their swaddling clothes in the Stable of Bethlehem; whose tender cry she had stilled with a few drops of milk from her virginal breast! There is no cry now : the silence is that of death; and the pierced hands, the pierced feet, the pierced side, the long hair clotted with blood, the still livid marks of the scourges, tell the awful story as no word of man or of angel could tell it to Mary.
Duccio - The Deposition
The actual Deposition, or the taking down of the Crucified One from the cross, was chosen early by the Greek artists; and the deepest veneration was adhered to in the conducting of this descent of the sacred body. The Greek traditions had been transmitted to Duccio of Siena, and to his representation we turn as to the most perfect exponent of the sentiments of that age. In this we see Joseph of Arimathea descending the ladder, one arm thrown over the arm of the cross in order to steady himself, but the right supporting the body of the Lord under both arms. Saint John has one arm around the body, the other around the knees, and Nicodemus is drawing the one nail from the crossed feet.

Thus, as the body inclines forward, one arm and hand fall on the shoulder of Mary, who takes His face between her hands and kisses it most fondly; the other hand and arm have been taken by the Magdalene in her mantle, and pressed to her cheek with an exceeding mournfulness of pity. Four other pitying women surround this group, in which the dolor of the Blessed Virgin may be considered as the chief motive, and this motive expressed with a tenderness, a loveliness, which leaves it, as a conception, unequalled in art. Again and again had this type been hinted at, but never carried out in its perfection until the Sienese painter, inheriting, as he had, the sensibility which belongs to his race, conceived it, in a moment of tearful transport, for one of the compartments of the great altarpiece in the cathedral of his own city.
Deposition of Christ (Fra Angelico)
In the sacristy of the Church of " The Trinity," Florence, Fra Angelico painted a Deposition, which is now in the Belle Arti of that city, so elaborate in its arrangement, so carefully executed, that it has been regarded always as one of his greatest works. The city of Jerusalem and its hills make the background, sorrowing angels filling in the points of the side arches, the middle taken up altogether with the cross and the ladders and the figures of the noble senators, who are supporting the body under the arms; the beautiful head rests on its own shoulder,— the whole figure so sustained by Saint John on one side, on the other by two disciples, as to give the perfection of grace and beauty in death: no distortion by reason of the agony that is past; no effort on the part of those who have entirely released the precious body from its bed of suffering; Saint Mary Magdalene is holding the pierced feet adoringly on her hands, as she touches them with her lips.

At the left hand, near Saint John, is a group of figures—holy men, who have followed the Lord, and are now with Him at His burial; and one, carrying in one hand the three nails, in the other the crown of thorns, holds them pityingly before them; while a youth, with a shining halo, but not an aureole, kneels in a transport of adoration, gazing at the dead Christ descending from His cross on the hands of those who love Him. On the right hand, the holy women, a group of seven, sorrowingly surround the Blessed Virgin, who is on her knees, waiting, with hands joined, to receive her Son into her arms; while, standing over her, is Mary of Cleophas, looking down upon her, with clasped hands and streaming tears, as if pitying the heart-break of this Mother of Sorrows.

The holy tranquillity of an adoring compassion is unbroken by one movement of haste or of anxiety, and the line of blood and water that trickles from the wounded side, and a few drops on the forehead where the crown of thorns rested, only recall that copious blood-shedding by which the world had been redeemed; while on the countenance rests a serene brightness, as if the Divine Sufferer had entered into His rest.
Campana - Descent from the Cross (detail)
It is told of Murillo that, as a mere child, he would linger for hours before the great picture by Campana in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Seville, a Descent from the Cross,—"waiting," as he said, "until those holy men should take down the Blessed Lord." The most beautiful fruit of this early predilection is a mystical Deposition— the dead Christ lying on the lap of the Eternal Father, the arms resting horizontally to the elbows across the knees, the head held in one hand, the other lifted over the forehead of the Eternal Son, as if in benediction ; still above planes the Dove of the Eternal Holy Spirit; the winding-sheet on which repose the lifeless limbs, upheld by angels, dense clouds closing around it; while above is a burst of glory, as if from the Beatific Vision.

The scene following immediately upon the actual Deposition, when Our Lord rests from the grievous travail of Redemption on the knees of His Blessed Mother, called the " Pieta," or the Compassion, has found a place in sculpture and in painting through all the most beautiful periods of Christian art, calling forth the most delicate sentiments of sympathy from the soul of the artist, and demanded by the people of every nation which has heard the story of Redeeming Love and of Mary's woes. The Byzantine School, from first to last, made it one of the subjects of predilection; and when Cimabue painted in the upper Church of Saint Francis at Assisi, Giotto in the Arena Chapel at Padua, it was not forgotten. Ambrogio Lorenzetti's " Pieta " is in the Academy at Siena ; Donatello's, on one of the bronze panels of the pulpit in San Lorenzo, Florence; Botticelli's, in the Munich Gallery; Mantegna's can be studied in the Brera Gallery; Bellini's, in Florence. Fra Angelico painted this scene several times; but while the title is allowed to cover many scenes in the same act, we limit our own presentation of it to the literal lying of the dead Christ on the lap of His Mother.

It is this which Michael Angelo sculptured with all the fervor of youthful piety, as the spring flower of his mighty genius, and which stands to-day in the first chapel to the right hand as we push back the ponderous leathern curtain that hangs before the entrance to Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome. The right hand of the Virgin-Mother supports the slender body of her Son under its right shoulder, the hand dropping helplessly in death; the head is pillowed once more on her arm, the limbs upon her knees, as she bends over Him with all a mother's compassion; and her left hand is put forth slightly, with a gesture of irrepressible anguish, as if saying: " Was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow ? " In the Belle Arti, Florence, is a " Pieta," strictly so-called, by Perugino; not the actual scene on Mount Calvary, but by way of meditation. The body of the dead Christ rests on His Mother's knees; the head is borne on the shoulders of a kneeling youth, who looks out from the picture as if asking our pity; but above him is seen a Saint John, who seems to be still gazing on his Lord upon the cross. The feet rest upon the knees of Saint Mary Magdalene, who, with clasped hands, deeply meditative countenance, contemplates those wounded feet, which she anointed for their burial. At her side stands Joseph of Arimathea, the clasped hands held downward, the face full of the deepest compassion, looking upon Our Lady, as she, too, looks with unspeakable compassion upon the face of her Divine Son—that face so benign in death, yet so solemn in its adorable sweetness. The whole group is sublimely conceived ; the sorrow a sublime sorrow, and the grandeur is of that sort which takes in the beginning and the end : the eternity of Redemption in the mind of God, as well as the eternity of its duration for those who embrace it.

To the right, as one enters the Chapel of San Brizio, in the Cathedral of Orvieto (where we see on the walls the unrivalled groups of the Last Judgment, in all their terrible significance, by Luca Signorelli, and on the ceiling those groups of the blessed after their last judgment by Fra Angelico), in the midway arch stands high on a pedestal, so as to break in between Signorelli's groups, a "Pieta" in marble by Ippolito Scalza,—a veritable Dead Christ on the lap of His Mother. Her hand lies under His right arm, hanging downward; His head rests upon His own shoulder; His left arm is slightly raised by Saint Mary Magdalene, so that her cheek presses upon the pierced hand; while her own left hand is laid gently under His pierced left foot. Joseph of Arimathea stands to the right of the Blessed Virgin, one hand on the ladder, the other holding to his breast the pincers with which he detached the Lord Christ from His cross; and he looks down into the dead face, pillowed on its own shoulder, with a manly tenderness of sympathy which is also worship.

The grandeur of the Mother of Sorrows is emphasized by the raised hand, as if she were uttering one of the Lamentations of Jeremiah over the lifeless Saviour of her people, as well as her own Son. The terminal forms of the Christ have not the delicacy of those in Michael Angelo's "Pieta:" the whole form is heavier; but the head is very beautiful, the relaxed expression of the whole figure most pathetic, and the sublimity of Mary in anguish is worthy of all the prophecies which she and her Divine Son have fulfilled.

The Campo Santo, not of Pisa, but of Siena, gives us a " Pieta" which proves that neither piety nor inspiration is to fail with the ages. This is by Giovanni Dupre, born at Siena, March I, 1817. Let us quote his own words: " When I was engaged by the Marquis Ruspoli to make the 'Pieta' for the Campo Santo of the Misericordia in Siena, I said: ' The Son of God crucified and dead, the Mother mourning for Him,—these are the two grand thoughts of my subject; two, but virtually forming only one.' This idea called up in my mind the image of the group, and I made my small model in clay." To this followed studies from a model; but nothing satisfied. " One day, in summer," he says, " I fell asleep; and lo ! I seemed to see what I had long sought in vain, my 1 Pieta :' Jesus stretched on the ground, sustained upon the knee of the Madonna, His right arm resting upon her, the left hanging down, His head gently inclined upon His breast; while the Madonna was bending over him with that look of unutterable woe. I woke up, ran to my studio and instantly made the new model. I tremble to think how this design, so simple, after I had in vain tried to find it by art and by long study, came to me almost of itself." And indeed it is easy to believe that the artist was really inspired !

Our century closes with a " Pieta " from the School of Beuron, so tender, so altogether heavenly in its sorrow, so exquisite in its technique, that our own words may well close with it as gently as on on the strings of a harpist would die the last strains of the " Stabat Mater."

Note. —My first acquaintance with the School of Beuron was made through this picture, during my visit, in 1876, to Monte Cassino. Dom Bonifacio Krug, O. S. B., then Prior, now Archabbot, of Monte Cassino, had a small print of it in his possession, which he showed to me, with great veneration, as exemplifying the aesthetic and technical motives of this ideal school of art, founded by Benedictines during the last half or this present century. Under his priorship, the ancient monastery was glorified anew at the hands of the Beuron artists.

From The Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary By By Eliza Allen Starr