Pontormo, Deposition From the Cross, (1525–8) Capponi Chapel Church of Santa Felicita, Florence

Church of Santa Felicita

March 2018



COMPOSITION: The structure of the panel and the composition chosen by Pontormo for this painting imbue the scene with a strongly vertical feel, with the painting devised and conceived to be seen from the viewpoint of an observer gazing upwards. It is not clear whether Christ is being carried to the Virgin or being carried away, but in any event one’s attention is captured by the swooning Virgin; in fact virtually every figure in the composition is emotionally involved in her malaise. Seeming indifference to her predicament is displayed only by the two characters looking directly at the observer, in other words the supposed self-portrait of the artist (sporting a turban and a simple scarf) and the angel with curly hair supporting the body of Christ in the foreground.

The setting is an artificial “stage set” hill, a ploy devised by Pontormo to justify the figures being placed so high up.

SUPPORT: The Deposition is made up of six poplarwood planks displaying a subradial cut. The panel is joined together by three original (probably) larchwood cross-pieces inserted through a shim about one-third the thickness of the planks themselves. The knots in the wood were already present when the panel was being worked on, prompting Pontormo’s carpenter to replace certain irregular areas with differently-shaped dowel plugs going right through the wood. On the painted side of the panel, a slight depression in the neck of the kneeling angel shows where a “bow-tie” dowel has replaced a knot.

Small rectangular pieces of wood (which show up under X-ray) where the planks join one another are designed to strengthen and block the joints during glueing. A similar system is found on the Carmignano Visitation and was fairly common across the board in 16th century Florence. Chemical and stratigraphical analysis is currently being conducted to discover the makeup of the glue used to both fasten the planks together and in the painting itself.

A split in the joint which can be seen towards the top of the painting will be made good with the addition of an insert during restoration.

DRAWING: The painting was thought out with immense care, and indeed there exist numerous drawings not only of the panel but of the Capponi Chapel in its entirety, for instance the four drawings of the Patriarchs that adorned the chapel vault until it was renovated in the 18th century. To paint the panel, Pontormo used the cartoon method, which consists in tracing the drawing from a sheet with charcoal on the back directly onto the sized panel. We can often tell when the cartoon method was used rather than free-hand drawing because the outline is less incisive and continuous; in fact occasionally it even breaks off before being taken up again.

THE COLOURS: The colours are blended with lighter tones and shading is reduced to a bare minimum; in fact it is mostly absent, prompting Giorgio Vasari to say that: “…for, thinking always of new things, he executed it without shadows, and with a colouring so bright and so uniform, that one can scarcely distinguish the lights from the middle tints, and the middle tints from the darks“: In other words the hues he adopted are so light and so similar in their intensity that the parts in full light (the lights) are virtually impossible to distinguish from those with a hint of shade (the middle tints), or those with a hint of shade from those in full shadow (the darks).

Picking up on Vasari’s words, most of the pigments, which are very similar to those used for the four tondos in the chapel’s squinches (which I myself restored in 2013) and, in part, for the Carmignano Visitation (restored in 2015), are almost all blended with white lead. That is why the work lights up regardless of where the light is coming from, although Pontormo’s own light comes from the right to create such singular effects as, for example, the face of the handmaiden behind the Virgin who is struck by slanting right, or the woman’s face which is grey because it is in shade, the light merely brushing her hair.

Tones of light blue and steel blue dominate the picture, in which azurite is blended with white lead, black and lapis lazuli, especially in the central part of the composition where it highlights the figure of the Virgin, her crumpling and billowing robe taking up three-quarters of the painting.

The same is true of the sheath-like skin of the curly-haired angel supporting Christ’s body, while the foreshortened figure holds Christ’s neck as though it were a ball. In the background, the removal of the layers of varnish applied in earlier restorations has revealed the sky painted with a velatura consisting only in lapis lazuli and white lead, while a solitary cloud lit up by the reflection of the sun’s rays emerges from beneath the warm, pinkish hue of the sizing.

The overall effect points to painter who is never slapdash, a painter who does not so much paint as modulate his drawing almost like a sculptor. The flesh is a blend of white lead, vermilion and a touch of red ochre, while the curly locks are a blend of white lead and yellow and red ochre. The way the flesh is rendered gives the observer the feeling that he is looking at a painting and at figures not painted by human hand.

The pink of the garments is reminiscent of crushed cyclamens, finished with madder lacquer on the few areas of shade. The palette, which is the same as the one the artist used for his Visitation, is typical of Pontormo’s mature work from the second half of the 1520s, after he had turned thirty.

Mary Magdalen’s hair, which we see from behind, is deliberately left unkempt, hanging down her back like serpents’ tongues. There is no dividing line between her flesh and the candy pink of her gown. The colours seem to be tattoed on the skin like overalls that neither define nor create folds, producing the lizard-like effect we see, for example, on the figure of St. John at the top of the picture. Pontormo did not want to break the flowing continuity of his forms, thus none of the garments has cuffs of any kind. Michelangelo’s nudes on the Sistine ceiling are likely to have struck Pontormo’s imagination and to have influenced him in this instance.

That may be one of the reasons why the picture began to enjoy a certain popularity in the 19th century, before which date it was generally dismissed as an eccentric painting of little worth. Today it is rightly acknowledged as the very symbol of Florentine Mannerist painting. The greens are obtained with a blend of copper, malachite and white lead with copper resinate for the shading, as we can see, for instance, on the tape emerging from the sleeve of the curly-haired figure on the left, while the robe of the figure carrying Christ is in malachite green without the copper resinate used to create shade and folds. The orange is a mixture of white lead, yellow and red ochre, and cinnabar, while the red is usually vermilion.

CLEANING: The last time the panel was moved was in 1936, when it was sent to an exhibition in Paris after Professor Vermeghen had restored it in 1935. Subsequent restoration in the 1960s and ’70s was confined to applying varnish and to retouching older repainting that had deteriorated.

We are currently completing removal of the layers of varnish and the retouching on candle burns in an attempt to get back to what is known as the “respectful film”, in other words a very thin film of varnish beneath which the colours still remain pure and are preserved over time.

For more information regarding the work in progress, please visit http://pontormo.danielerossi.it/cappella_capponi/.

With the Generous Support of:

Kathe and John Dyson

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