Caravaggio‘s Entombment (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City) presents a symbiosis between an emotionally strung theme and a monolithic, balanced composition. Suffering is elevated to an aesthetically pleasing – and hence tragic – conception that flows from a congregation of actors, a single block reminiscent of a bas-relief (Caravaggio was known for his propensity to emulate sculpture). Ultimately the psychological effect of the scene as a whole springs from the solid base of compositional logic.
An imaginary arch ensuing from the head of Mary of Cleophas and ending with Christ’s forehead marks by its edges several corresponding extremes: life vs. death, total desolation vs. absolute peace, standing vs. lying. Starting from her face, the imaginary line sweeps through the small crowd, touching the heads of all participants, establishing a link between them – a religious kinship. The overall emotional range covered can be difficult to apprehend at the first glance; each actor represents an independent character and way of dealing with sorrow; some appear to avoid grief, or, perhaps, appear as if grief avoided them.
A diagonal dissecting the piece from the left upper corner roughly towards the right lower corner – essentially a perpendicular to the mentioned arch – offers another view of the scene. This particular line draws a border between the men and the women in the painting. Though this arrangement makes practical sense due to a tradition-dictated obligatory custom (that male dead be tended by men), the division is bound, I think, to beget symbolical interpretations. Women overlook the men: Caravaggio might have wanted to convey the church’s lofty ideal of the Virgin by physically placing her above the rest. A modern, feminist-inspired interpretation may even imply female superiority.
The descending lines and rhythm of the composition, combined with tears of sorrow allude to a waterfall scenery, or water cascading down from a mountain. This visual allegory, in turn, gives rise to a series of Christianity and Jesus related associations: baptism, stigmatization of saints (Anne’s open palms appear to be preparing to receive the stigmata – she already signals her readiness to imitate Christ), and flowing blood (or wine).
Indeed, even Christ’s hand, as it touches the slab and points downward to the ground, may symbolically refer to the fertile soil that might absorb these fluids – this ground would be the hearts and minds of neophytes. The green plant emerging from below may symbolize the yield of new religion, which would literally grow out of the body of Christ – an idea now echoed by the Eucharist. The robe coming in contact with the plant indicates linkage and continuation and closes this notional cycle.