THE DEPOSITION is properly that moment which succeeds the DESCENT from the Cross ; when the dead form of Christ is deposed or laid upon the ground, resting on the lap of his Mother, and lamented by St. John, the Magdalene, and others. The ideal and devotional form of this subject, styled a Pietà, may be intended to represent one of those festivals of the Passion Week which commemorate the participation of the holy Virgin Mother in the sufferings of her Son. I have already spoken at length of this form of the Mater Dolorosa ; the historical version of the same subject is what we have now to consider, but only so far as regards the figure of the Virgin.
In a Deposition thus dramatically treated there are always from four to six or eight figures. The principal group consists of the dead Saviour and his Mother. She generally holds him embraced, or bends over him contemplating his dead face, or lays her cheek to his with an expression of unutterable grief and love : in the antique conception she is generally fainting ; the insensibility, the sinking of the whole frame through grief, which in the Crucifixion is misplaced, both in regard to the religious feeling and the old tradition, is here quite proper. Thus she appears in the genuine Greek and Greco-Italian productions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as in the two finest examples that could be cited in more modern times.
1. In an exquisite composition by Raphael, usually styled a Pietà, but properly a Deposition, there are six figures ; the extended form of Christ ; the Virgin swooning in the arms of Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas ; Mary Magdalene sustains the feet of Christ, while her sister Martha raises the veil of the Virgin, as if to give her air ; St. John stands by with clasped hands ; and Joseph of Arimathea looks on the sorrowing group with mingled grief and pity.
2. Another, an admirable and celebrated composition by Annibal Caracci, known as the four Maries, omits Martha and St. John. The attention of Mary Magdalene is fixed on the dead Saviour; the other two Maries are occupied by the fainting Mother. (Castle Howard.) On comparing this with Raphael’s conception, we find more of common nature, quite as much pathos, but in the forms less of that pure poetic grace, which softens at once, and heightens the tragic effect.
Besides Joseph of Arimathea, we have sometimes Nicodemus; as in the very fine Deposition by Perugino [in the Pitti, Florence], and in one, not less fine, by Albert Dürer. In a Deposition by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, stands near his sister Martha.
In a picture by Vandyck [Lichtenstein, Vienna], the Mother closes the eyes of the dead Redeemer : in a picture by Rubens, she removes a thorn from his wounded brow, both natural and dramatic incidents very characteristic of these dramatic painters.
There are some fine examples of this subject in the old German school. In spite of ungraceful forms, quaint modern costumes, and worse absurdities, we often find motifs, unknown in the Italian school, most profoundly felt, though not always happily expressed. I remember several instances in which the Madonna does not sustain her Son ; but kneeling on one side, and with clasped hands, she gazes on him with a look, partly of devotion, partly of resignation ; both the devotion and the resignation predominating over the maternal grief. I have been asked, ” why no painter has ever yet represented the Great Mother as raising ber hands in thankfulness that her Son had drunk the cup had finished the work appointed for him on earth ?” This would have been worthy of the religious significance of the moment; and I recommend the theme to the consideration of artists. In the most modern Deposition I have seen (one of infinite beauty and new in arrangement, by Paul Delaroche), the Virgin, kneeling at some distance, and a little above, contemplates her dead Son. The expression and attitude are those of intense anguish, and only anguish. It is the bereaved Mother ; it is a craving desolation, which is in the highest degree human and tragic ; but it is not the truly religious conception.