Painted probably in the early 1660s, towards the end of Poussin’s life, this sombre figure composition is a distillation of his Roman experiences. The composition is geometrically simple – two horizontals and two verticals, rounded off by the figures of John and Joseph of Arimathea at either side of the canvas. The background colours have the sobriety we have come to expect of the artist; but the blues and reds of the drapery have a luminous intensity which draws attention to their expressive importance.
This is frozen grief, expressed not in the faces of the participants, which are invisible or in deep shadow, but by the folds of their clothing. It is a baroque trick which Poussin has classicised. Bernini had put all the passion of his Santa Teresa in Ecstasy into her swirling garments: Poussin puts all the grief of his mourners into the falling music of their robes.
The geometry, too, is borrowed but transmuted. The figure of Jesus, down to the deathly flesh tones, is taken from Sebastiano del Piombo’s Pieta (said to have been drafted by Michelangelo). But the equilateral triangle which is the basis of Sebastiano’s composition, and which raises the eyes and spirits upwards, is here replaced by the checkerboard of verticals and horizontals which ties the whole arrangement to the ground upon which the deathless body lies.
Is this, in any meaningful sense, a religious painting? Its stasis leads nowhere: the observer is not uplifted nor moved to either compassion or prayer. We are objective observers of Grief with a capital ‘G’. The affective moment has been refined into a universal symbol. Poussin’s lighting is reminiscent of the Caravaggisti; but here there is none of the immediacy of Caravaggio’s genre scenes.
All is thoughtful, measured, calculated, controlled. This static moment is the fruit of a lifetime observing, not nature nor the human passions, but other men’s art.