Contemplating the Body of Christ: Caravaggio’s Entombment

As the lights dimmed on the Jubilee year of 1600, Caravaggio’s star was on the rise. After years of small private commissions, the Milanese painter had captivated Rome with his astonishing works in the churches of San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. He was then snapped up by the Oratorians, who commissioned his Entombment for their new church (Chiesa Nuova) of Santa Maria in Vallicella, dubbed by artist Peter Paul Rubens as “the most famous and frequented church in Rome.”

Caravaggio’s painting, one amid ten altarpieces commissioned for the lateral chapels of Chiesa Nuova, stood out for its focus on the significance of the Eucharist in the liturgy. The physicality, monumentality, and centrality of the Body of Christ in the Entombment illustrated the real presence in the sacrament in a new and arresting fashion during an age when this dogma had been called into question by the Protestant Reformation.

Oratorian Circles

This monumental altarpiece (120 by 80 inches) moved Caravaggio’s contemporary Giovanni Bellori to describe it as “his best work.” It bears the distinction of being the only of his paintings to be requisitioned by the French under the treaty of Tolentino in 1797. Returned to Italy in 1815, the Entombment was placed in the Vatican Museums. There, though well preserved, it languishes far from its proper context, while a poor copy in Chiesa Nuova subdues what was once a clarion call to holiness and the sacraments.

Caravaggio received the commission for the Entombment in 1602 through the Vittrice family, close friends and supporters of Saint Philip Neri. Its destination, the Pietà chapel, was part of Philip’s plan to enlarge Chiesa Nuova with side chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the Blessed Virgin. This emphasis on side chapels dovetailed with the Oratorian focus on the Eucharist, Saint Philip Neri having introduced the Forty Hour’s devotion a few years earlier. To add to its distinction, Pope Gregory XIII conferred an indulgence upon the chapel for a soul in purgatory.

At that point, Caravaggio had been moving in the Oratorian circles for several years. His Cardinal protector, Francesco Maria del Monte, belonged to Philip’s Archconfraternity of the Pilgrims. Del Monte resided in the Medici palace in Rome. His landlord, Cardinal Alessandro de’ Medici, later Pope Leo XI, was one of Philip’s earliest disciples and laid the foundation stone of Chiesa Nuova. Most of Caravaggio’s commissions came through these Oratorian connections.

Conferred Grandeur

It is an intriguing exercise to imagine what Philip, who died in 1595, might have thought of Caravaggio’s provocative painting. Many viewers were startled by the rugged simplicity of the work: the calloused feet of Nicodemus, the dirty toes of Christ, the middle-aged Virgin, the rough garb of the ensemble.

It bore little resemblance to Barocci’s angelic Visitation across the nave, a symphony of pastel so delightful it had been the catalyst of one of Philip’s famous ecstasies. Among all the altarpieces, it was the starkest, darkest and least charming, yet in its dissonance, it harmonized with Philip’s charism—underscoring his love of humility, the poor, and especially the Eucharist.

Saint Philip Neri began his ministry in Rome caring for the poor, particularly the pilgrims arriving for the Jubilee years. With his companions, he set up a house for the destitute pilgrims where they ministered to them, serving them at table and washing their feet. Through Philip’s eyes, the ungainly feet and the coarse tunic of the laborer Nicodemus (probably a portrait of the patron Pietro Vittrice) would likely recall the many barefoot pilgrims who had come through his center. Centuries earlier, Saint John Chrysostom had written that Christ “made himself not only a man, but a poor man; for this he chose a poor mother and modest dwelling.”

Instead of painting the silks and velvets that had catapulted him to fame in his Saint Matthew cycle at San Luigi dei Francesi, Caravaggio employed muted colors and simple fabrics. With his monumental figures, however, Caravaggio conferred a grandeur upon the men and women of the Entombment that paralleled the dignity Saint Philip and his companions bestowed upon their pilgrims.

Humility certainly did not feature among Caravaggio’s gifts; his biography is punctuated with arrests for drawing his sword at any offense to his pride, real or imagined. It would seem that this swaggering Milanese painter could never find common ground with the Florentine saint who was ever repeating, “Be humble, be lowly.” In the Entombment, however, he overcame his own vices and produced an innovative composition that evoked the virtue of humility at every turn.

A Supernatural Light

Caravaggio removed any background in the work, placing his figures against a formless dark backdrop. Eschewing scenic distractions and perspectival flourishes, he presented a deceptively simple and focused scene, much like Philip Neri “shocked and mortified a courtly world with insistent reminders of the religion of the streets.” The austere apostolic simplicity of Philip’s sermons found its parallel in the reductive, realistic figures of Caravaggio.

The striking use of what had become his signature chiaroscuro light effect adds to this impression. A group of unremarkable people, neither idealized nor elegant, are bunched together on a ledge. They are lowering an unwieldly corpse into a grave. Caravaggio’s light, however, transforms the scene from its humble presentation. There is nothing natural in that light: no lamp, moon or sun produced it. It is a supernatural light that reveals the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

The beam illuminates the face of the woman in the upper right, transforming her into a visual beacon. Her hand leads the eye downwards, first to the bent heads of the two Marys and then to the bent bodies of Saint John and Nicodemus. Our heads bow down, instead of tilting up, as we gaze at the work, inviting us to meditate on humility as “the cornerstone of the Christian virtues,” in the words of Cardinal Agostino Valier, another of Philip’s disciples.

The painting has virtually no perspectival depth; instead the slab of the tomb seems to penetrate into the viewer’s space. The block recalls Psalm 118:22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This psalm was part of the Easter liturgy and alluded to Jesus—humiliated, rejected, and executed—who will become the foundation of the church.

The tombstone leads the viewer into Caravaggio’s greatest illustration of Saint Philip’s spirituality: the centrality of the Eucharist. Philip Neri, born in the midst of the Protestant Reformation when the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was called into question, became one of its greatest advocates. His love of the mass and his hours of adoration are reflected in Caravaggio’s masterpiece.

Piero Vittrice died and was buried in the crypt below the altar before the painting was installed. Among his many bequests, he asked for masses to be said there for his soul. The Entombment, now hanging on a sterile museum wall, was intended as a backdrop for those masses.

Meaningful Spaces

Caravaggio’s work irritated his contemporaries not only for its “excessive realism,” but also for its disregard of compositional rules. Blank spaces and dark sections offended his peers with their carefully organized canvasses. Yet Caravaggio’s empty spaces were often more meaningful than the clutter of symbols favored by his age.

Under the protruding stone, Caravaggio painted a shadowy gap, anathema to seventeenth-century painters. Furthermore, instead of hiding it, he emphasized it. The array of bodies leading the eye downwards culminates in the fleshy body of Christ barely contained in Saint John’s grasp. A brilliant swath of white seems to cascade onto the stone, an allusion to the shroud, but also reminiscent of the altar cloth.

Jesus’ hand slips loose, falling downwards so that his three fingers lie softly at the edge of the stone. While they count off the days before the resurrection, they also point to the murky space below. Like an unresolved musical chord, the composition hangs heavily, waiting for the final note.

That complementary chord was meant to be the priest, celebrating mass at the altar, who would step into the space and complete the painting with the re-presentation of Christ’s salvific sacrifice. Nicodemus’ direct stare above the yawning chasm added a sense of urgency to the work, as if the whole scene hinges on the faithful’s participation in the mass.

Careful study reveals two plants on either side of the opening: one, grazed by Christ’s shroud, is green and florid, while the other has wilted. Jesus’ promise of resurrection resounds through this space in the light, in the mass, and even in the name of its patron—Piero Vittrice, which translates into the “rock of victory.” Caravaggio masterfully illustrated how the body of Christ, present in the mass, brought eternal life to those who prayed in that chapel, those buried there and those fortunate recipients of the indulgence.

It might be fair to say that Philip Neri would have approved.

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches, studies and writes in Rome with a special focus on Renaissance and Baroque art. Her most recent book is How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.