The greatest painting ever made is...
Oh my god, this is so exciting!
I'm on the edge of my seat!
The greatest painting ever made is...
The Deposition from the Cross by Jacopo Pontormo!
Wait, why isn't everybody more amazed and excited?
Oh, right, because this is the third part of our analysis of this painting.
You want to see the painting?
Okay, here is a barely adequate reproduction to get us warmed up:
Now, even though we are on the third and final part of our review of this greatest painting, parts one and two have merely set the stage and provided the context for our discussion today. So finally there's going to be tons of stuff today actually about the Deposition!
But first let's review as briefly as possible so we're all set to discuss this masterpiece like we're all big time Art History Majors.
1. Deposition from the Cross is the greatest painting ever, better than any other, with the understanding that there are many other greatest ever paintings, also better than any others. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it.
2. There were three sequential periods in art broadly around the time of this painting; Renaissance, then Mannerism, then Baroque. They are like an Oreo cookie. Renaissance is the first cookie and was about harmony, balance, developing naturalism, and the birth of individual celebrity genius. Baroque is the second cookie naturally progressing from the first, being about applying that mastery of naturalism to our own recognizable world and all its passionate, gritty reality. In between the two lay the strange and mercurial cream of the Oreo, Mannerism, the period which our painting by Pontormo occupies the very epicenter of.
3. Mannerism was the wild and crazy artistic answer to "What do you do when you've mastered naturalism and perfect anatomy and 3D rendering through linear perspective?" With the answer being:
You mess with it.
4. Michelangelo, genius of the Renaissance, kicked off Mannerism by getting so good at Renaissance art that he was bored of it (see hand, below, for example of perfected Renaissance naturalism).
So Michelangelo invented (sort of) Mannerism, taking complete command of the naturalism of Renaissance art and twisting it to the artist's vision, understanding, and expressions of heightened elegance. This, as seen below, in an example of his Sistine Ceiling, which is the first, great, and wildly influential, Mannerist work.
Now we're up to date!
Here is Jacopo Pontormo:
Hey, wait, we recognize this guy.
Where do we know him from?
Oh yeah, there he is. The figure on the far right in our painting, kind of in the back there.
Hi Jacopo! (One day maybe I'll tell you about his food journals!)
The best place I have ever been for looking at art, just wandering in someplace and looking at art, is Rome. It's not that there aren't dozens of places to pay to go see amazing art, or even legendary museums with blood curdlingly long lines and oppressive crowd control (hello Vatican Museum!), but you can also just wander into any number of mostly churches and see Raphael frescoes ignored in the corner, or a Michelangelo sculpture with a few velvet ropes protecting it, or countless Caravaggio paintings in dark side chapels that you will find pictures of in every reputable book on the history of art, and that are now just... sitting there, for you, in the dark.
But The Deposition (as we will henceforth call it) is in Florence.
And Florence, while featuring nearly as great and vast a collection of art as Rome, does not have much one can just wander into, free and half ignored, and can have to yourself. Even though there is plenty of legendary Florence art socked away in churches and cloisters and side aspses and whatnot, they've done a fairly serious job of monetizing the lot of them, and making a little mini museum out of everything.
But there is one exception.
Yep this one, here it is, in situ:
Now, amazingly, this little chapel, the Capponi Chapel, was designed by one of the most important architects ever, Brunelleschi, the same guy who designed the Florence Cathedral Dome, one of the greatest feats in the entire history of Architecture!
But we don't have time to go into all that.
We'll just say Pontormo was asked (hired?) to decorate it.
This Capponi Chapel is in Santa Felicita, a modest church in (sort of) the heart of Florence. I say "sort of" because Santa Felicita really is pretty central, right near the Ponte Vecchio (the famous bridge) and just down the street from the Pitti Palace.
But it is on the "wrong" side of the river, in the neighborhood called Oltrarno. So, "sort of".
Anyway, nice place, convenient location, free admission. I mean, one can just walk right into this church, Santa Felicita, and see the greatest painting ever made. That's how my wife and I saw it. It was crowded outside, but we were all alone with the painting. It's a pretty amazing thing.
But you might be able to pick out a problem.
Yes, it's behind a cage.
So that's kind of too bad.
Pontormo's Deposition is a picture of when Jesus's friends and family take him down from the cross after he's dead. That's why everyone looks pretty gobsmacked in the painting. Like:
I think that's Mary. And then there's this guy:
God I love their strange, almost elfen rounded faces, but I mustn't get sidetracked. Because my point is that even with all the weird, wild, Mannerist craziness in this painting, it is fair to start with this:
1. It is full of feeling.
The Messiah guy, who was supposedly super nice and generous and wise, was institutionally murdered in an unbelievably brutal way, God on Earth was killed, and these people are brokenhearted! They are wandering, almost lost with grief, with his body, and with nowhere to go. It's terrible.
Remember how I said Mannerism came after The Renaissance and it was like they already mastered anatomy and naturalism and space and rendering in the Renaissance, so the Mannerists were like:
Let's mess with it?
That doesn't mean they hadn't mastered all those things too. Remember Michelangelo's hand of David above as my example of perfecting representation? This painting is full of warped laws of physics, strange elongations, crazy colors, and twisting poses, but, check out, for example, this hand by Pontormo:
When Pontormo paints a pink lobster 9-foot crouching carrier of Christ it's not because he doesn't know how to do the perfect normal version at full on Rembrandt level.
What I'm saying is: This painting is full astonishing rendering.
It's just got some bigger fish to fry too.
Oh, and by the way. Do you know how many hands I counted in this painting? Eleven.
That's also the number of people in this painting.
It probably means something.
So what all is in this painting:
11 people with 11 hands visible
Some featureless ground that sort of disappears
A tiny cloud in the upper left
Enough pretty, colorful fabric that one could probably wrap up the moon in it.
Brunelleschi, who designed this chapel, is generally credited as being the person who described and articulated the rules for linear perspective. This may have done more to change western painting than anything else ever. It ruled painting for 500 years and created the naturalism of space in painting according to scientific and mathematic principals.
But get this: Pontormo, painting said chapel many years later, fully versed in linear perspective, is nevertheless having none of that. Figures are floating in air, rising up (maybe that's why he put in a cloud, though it's a sad little gray one). There is no ground. No horizon. Not really even sky. And no linear perspective!
Here, look at this guy again:
He's carrying the larger part of a dead Christ, crouched awkwardly, and it's like he's floating on his toes. Feet rise away from him on cloth, off the ground, into nothing.
He curves, he floats, he grieves. He's resplendent in gold and pewter and pink and sadness.
But look at it: everyone is floating, rising, lamenting, twirling, grieving, swirling. It's like a dance with everything curving and curling into everything else. The curve of the pink back. The curve of Christ's torso and thighs. The curve of Mary's head through her reaching arm, the curve of the leaning figure above her, and on and on.
Christ has died and they are lost, in space and time and purpose and grief.
It's pretty neat.
They are burdened with a dead god and it's beautiful and terrible.
It's a good painting.