The Dead Christ Supported by Three Angels

The Dead Christ Supported by Three Angels

Venetian artist

Venetian artist (?)
second half of the 15th century
painted papier mâché on a wooden support
84 x 68 cm
source of the artwork

1937: Fermo, acquired by the museum from the antique dealer Ernesto Monti

short description

The depiction of the Dead Christ, his inert body strenuously held back on the edge of the tomb by grieving angels, dates back to 13th century Byzantium. The materials used to fashion this work in relief point to the use of an initial mould to which variants could then be added. Some scholars have suggested that this and other versions of the composition, both painted and in relief, from the Veneto and the Adriatic coast may be based on a lost model by Donatello. The image is powerfully evocative, drawing in and moving the faithful observer and testifying to the broad circulation that it must have enjoyed also in a context of private devotion.

inventary n°

This depiction of the Dead Christ, his inert body bearing the marks of his suffering under torture and strenuously held back on the edge of the tomb by grieving angels, does not illustrate an episode in the Gospels but dates back to 13th century Byzantium. The intense relations between Venice and Constantinople resulted in this kind of Imago Pietatis spreading to the Veneto and along both shores of the Adriatic. The technique used in the Faenza relief, which is made of papier mâché on a wooden support, points to the use of an initial mould to which the artist could then add variants, which can be detected by comparing it with other surviving examples. The composition of some of these reliefs is identical to that of the Faenza piece and they, too, are made of painted papier mâché (one is now in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma and there is another in the sacristy of the church of San Lorenzo a Moletolo) or of stone (in the Museo di Arte Sacra in San Gimignano). Others, for example a terracotta work formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin and now lost, or a papier mâché version in the Princeton University Art Museum 1 , display a variant consisting in the presence of only two angels by Christ’s side. Scholars have suggested that a lost model created by Donatello inspired both these versions and the painted versions in the Veneto (De Marchi 1996, pp. 73-76). The great Florentine master had provided a powerful interpretation of the Imago Pietatis in a marble relief attributed to him 2 and, during his time in Padua, in a bronze relief set into the step of the Altar of St. Anthony in the Basilica of Sant’Antonio. Donatello’s model may well have been replicated in his workshop by his pupils Giovanni Minelli and Bartolomeo Bellano, Donatello’s assistant in Florence and in Padua, whose name has been put forward in the past for the Faenza piece (from Casadei 1991, p. 40, to Pistocchi in 2010). Yet the variants and the different dimensions of the countless exemplars point to the existence of several models and dies circulating in the workshops of the Veneto, which makes it difficult to put forward any specific attribution or date for the Faenza relief, also on account of the lack of documents concerning it (Petrucci 2001 and Bories 2020).

The golden tears furrowing the face of the young angels, the contrast between the thoroughly Florentine sweetness of the features of Christ’s face and the way he leans out towards the observer accentuate the pathos of the scene. The copious depiction of blood, achieved with the thickness provided by the relief and the use of red paint, exasperates the tragic aspect that the display of Jesus’s body was designed to arouse in the faithful. The work echoes the production of Vesperbilder (the depiction, of German origin, of the Virgin holding the dead Christ in her lap) and the Imagines Pietatis in stucco, wood or sandstone that were particularly widespread in the Veneto during the Renaissance. The blood spilt by Christ is also echoed in the simulated porphyry cladding on the tomb, in the guise of an altar, on which his body rests. In that sense, it is of some significance that it was the custom to place such items in churches in the Veneto and on the shores of the Adriatic on the altar facing the priest celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist (Bories 2020). The relief is set in a frame comprising a simple base and an architrave supported by two pilasters with Corinthian capitals and bases consisting of upturned capitals. The structure, decorated with plant motifs, and the drapery serving as the relief’s backdrop are evenly gilded and hark back to examples of the goldsmith’s art (Pistocchi 2010), a field of art in which the use of replicable models was equally customary.

R. Bories, in Il Corpo e l’Anima, da Donatello a Michelangelo. Scultura italiana del Rinascimento, exhibition catalogue (Milan, Castello Sforzesco, 21 July – 24 October 2021) ed. M. Bormand, B. Paolozzi Strozzi and F. Tasso, Rimini 2020, entry no. 65 pp. 240-241. WITH PREVIOUS BIBLIOGRAPHY

S. Casadei, Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, p. 40 no. 75

A. G. De Marchi, Centralità di Padova: alcuni esempi di interferenza tra scultura e pittura nell’area adriatica alla metà del Quattrocento, in Quattrocento Adriatico. Fifteenth-century art of the Adriatic Rim, conference proceedings (Florence, Villa Spelman, The John Hopkins University, 16 – 17 June 1994), ed. C. Dempsey, Bologna 1996, p. 73

F. Petrucci, in Il potere le arti la guerra. Lo splendore dei Malatesta, exhibition catalogue (Rimini, Castel Sismondo, 3 March – 15 June 2001) ed. Angela Donati, Milan 2001, pp. 372-373 entry no.164

M. A. Pistocchi, in La forma del Rinascimento: Donatello, Andrea Bregno, Michelangelo e la scultura a Roma nel Quattrocento, exhibition catalogue ed. by C. Crescentini, C. Strinati (Rome, Palazzo Venezia, June 16th-September 5th 2010), Soveria Mannelli (CZ) 2010, entry pp. 228-229

The images are the property of the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza. For the use of the images, please write to

written by
Alice Festi
  1. inv. no. y1962-75[]
  2. London, Victoria and Albert Museum, V&A: 7577-1861[]