THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS and the DEPOSITION are two separate themes. In the first, according to the antique formula, the Virgin should stand ; for here, as in the Crucifixion, she must be associated with the principal action, and not, by the excess of her grief, disabled from taking her part in it. In the old legend it is said, that when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrenched out the nails which fastened the hands of our Lord to the cross, St. John took them away secretly, that his Mother might not see them ” affin que la Vierge Maria ne les veit pas, crainte que le coeur ne lui amolist.” And then, while Nicodemus drew forth the nails which fastened his feet, Joseph of Arimathea sustained the body, so that the head and arms of the dead Saviour hung over his shoulder. And the afflicted Mother, seeing this, arose on her feet, and she took the bleeding hands of her Son, as they hung down, and clasped them in her own, and kissed him tenderly.
And then, indeed, she sank to the earth, because of the great anguish she suffered, lamenting her Son, whom the cruel Jews had murdered.
The first action described in this legend (the afflicted Mother embracing the arm of her Son) is precisely that which was adopted by the Greek masters, and by the early Italians who followed them, Niccolô Pisano, Cimabue, Giotto, Puccio Capanna, Duccio di Siena, and others from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. But in later pictures, the Virgin in the extremity of her grief has sunk to the ground. In an altar-piece by Cigoli, she is seated on the earth, looking out of the picture, as if appealing, “Was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow ? ” while the crown of thorns lies before her. This is very beautiful; but even more touching is the group in the famous ” Descent from the Cross,” the masterpiece of Daniel di Volterra (Rome, Trinità de’ Monti) : here the fainting form of the Virgin, extended on the earth, and the dying anguish in her face, have never been exceeded, and are, in fact, the chief merit of the picture. In the famous Descent at Antwerp, the masterpiece of Rubens, Mary stands, and supports the arm of her Son as he is let down from the cross. This is in accordance with the ancient version ; but her face and figure are the least effective part of this fine picture.
In a beautiful small composition, a print, attributed to Albert Durer, there are only three figures. Joseph of Arimathea stands on a ladder, and detaches from the cross the dead form of the Saviour, who is received into the arms of his Mother. This is a form of the Mater Dolorosa which is very uncommon, and must be regarded as exceptional and ideal, unless we are to consider it as a study and an incomplete group.