The Deposition from the Cross

The Deposition from the Cross

Giacomo Bertucci known as Jacopone da Faenza

oil on wood
380 x 235 cm
source of the artwork

Faenza, Church of San Rocco; entered the Pinacoteca in the wake of the Napoleonic dissolution of religious establishments (1801–3)

short description

The members of the Confraternity of San Rocco commissioned the painting in 1539 but Jacopone did not finish it until 1553, after the Confraternity had taken him to court for breach of contract. To make sure he did complete the project, he was allowed to choose the subject, which was different from the Confraternity’s initial request for a story from the life of the saint to whom its church was dedicated. The monumental altarpiece reflects the painter’s mature style, combining elements from the works of Vasari, Michelangelo and Perin del Vaga that he had seen in Florence and Rome. The lofty horizon and the landscape with Jerusalem, tinged with blue, under a rocky mountain were probably inspired by his experience in Ferrara, where he had worked with Battista Dossi and Girolamo da Carpi in 1537. We can also detect echoes of the celebrated Bosi Altarpiece that the Dossi brothers painted (with Jacopone’s assistance) for Faenza Cathedral in 1534, two surviving fragments of which are on display in the Pinacoteca, in such details as the bizarre headgear, identical to that sported by numerous figures in Dürer’s prints, and in the crowded composition.

inventary n°

The members of the Confraternity of San Rocco commissioned Jacopone in 1539 to paint an altarpiece depicting an episode from the life of their saint, but the artist did not manage to honour the committment (possibly because he was otherwise engaged in Ravenna and Rome), so they took him to court. The dispute was resolved by allowing him to choose the subject matter on condition that he completed the work, which he did between 1552 and 1553, producing this Deposition from the Cross, a picture replete with learned citations and reflecting the latest innovations in coeval Roman painting. The altarpiece was sent to the Pinacoteca when Napoleon dissolved religious establishments, but at the Restoration the Confraternity di San Rocco’s members charged with caring for the building insistently demanded the return of the picture. When their request met with the Bishop’s refusal, they commissioned a copy (on canvas – still in situ) from the painter Alessandro Ricciardelli, who delivered it to them in 1843.

Jacopone’s altarpiece is a monumental construction almost four metres tall, in which the cross looms large in the upper left-hand part of the composition, taking up almost half its overall height. Golgotha, from which Jerusalem can be seen in the distance, is extremely crowded. In the middle ground we see soldiers, onlookers, horse riders and people chatting about this and that as though nothing particular were happening, almost as though the artist were trying to emphasise the contrast with the dramatic event confined wholly in the foreground. The figures in the middle ground are men in gaudy costumes sporting bizarre caps that cover their ears, a northern European fashion probably inspired by the prints of Albrecht Dürer, for example the figures in his Small Passion (a series of woodcuts produced in Nuremberg c. 1511) who are reminiscent of those in the altarpiece of Christ among the Doctors that Battista and Dosso Dossi painted, with Jacopone’s assistance, for Giovanni Battista Bosi’s chapel in Faenza Cathedral in 1534. Though now destroyed, we know the painting through a copy still in situ and two surviving fragments in the Pinacoteca.

The lofty horizon and the landscape with Jerusalem, tinged with blue, under a rocky mountain were probably inspired by Jacopone’s experience in Ferrara, where he had worked with Battista Dossi and Girolamo da Carpi in 1537.

The bottom of the Deposition is almost wholly taken up by Christ’s body in a horizontal position, supported by Nicodemus (kneeling on the left) and by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, elegantly dressed and richly shod, on the right. According to the Gospels, it was Joseph who purchased the linen winding sheet, or shroud, in which the Saviour’s body was wrapped. We see him arranging it around his arm, without touching the holy limbs with his hands, a device designed to reveal his extraordinarily deep devotion to the sacred body, which he dare not contaminate through direct contact.

The Virgin, who has fainted, is held up by the Pious Women, on the left Mary of Cleopas and on the right Mary Magdalen in a sumptuous 16th century red silk gown with puffed sleeves, because in Jacopone’s day and in the centuries before him, figures from the ancient world were always depicted in contemporary costume. The young apostle standing on the left is St. Roch, to whom the church was dedicated, while the figure above Nicodemus is St. John the Evangelist. John’s arms are swept back in a pose recalling 2nd century AD Roman sarcophagi depicting the Death of Meleager, a young huntsman in Greek mythology who was slain by his mother following a family dispute. The gesture, used to express unfathomable grief, was also used in other eras, for instance by a classicist of the calibre of Nicola Pisano in his Slaughter of the Innocents on the pulpit in Siena Cathedral (1265–8), by Giotto in the Deposition scene in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (1303 – 5) and so on. The woman on the left raising her arms in a theatrical gesture also has precedents in the figures of mourners in numerous funeral scenes from Classical antiquity, which had clearly been known since the Middle Ages as we can see from an item in the Pinacoteca di Faenza itself, Mary Magdalen in the Deposition on a pinnacle of the Polyptych of the Poor Clares painted c. 1350. Donatello, in his Pulpit of the Passion in San Lorenzo in Florence (after 1460), also offers us an example of this gesture, which was to enjoy a long history well into the modern era when Caravaggio immortalised it in his sublime Deposition (1602–4) in the Vatican Museums. It is in the pose of the dead Christ, however, that the series of “expressions of grief” illustrated by Jacopone in the San Rocco Altarpiece reaches a peak. The Saviour’s still young body, whose powerful musculature and pose point to a meticulous study of Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s carved in 1498–9 (Tumidei 2003), is shown in profile, his head slumping backwards, his arm hanging limply down. This is known as the “arm of death”, a visual ploy christened “Pathosformel” (“formula of pathos”) by art historians, that captures the inertia of a lifeless body with brutal efficacy. Yet the example to which Jacopone most obviously turned for his inspiration was Giorgio Vasari’s Allegory of the Immaculate Conception in the church of Santi Apostoli in Florence (c. 1541), which he may have seen when travelling to Rome and back (Minardi 2023) or possibly in Rome itself, where Vasari was working after 1545. Jacopone borrowed two figures from Vasari’s altarpiece, David on the right, whom he used for his Joseph of Arimathea, and Adam, who not only displays the same pose as Jacopone’s Christ but also closes the lower edge of the composition just as Christ does in the San Rocco Altarpiece. Having said that, however, the primary source for all of this is, once again, the repertoire of grief offered by ancient sarcophagi illustrating the Death of Meleager. The depiction of the mythological hero’s body laid out on a sheet, his arm hanging limply down from it, proved immensely popular in the Renaissance (Raphael’s interpretation of it in his Deposition painted in 1507 and now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome is especially well-known) and Jacopone who, during his many years in Rome, was able to admire not only the work of “modern” artists but also Classical antiquities, certainly offers us here an extremely effective interpretation of it, brimming with religious feeling.

B. Agosti, Jacopone addosso a Vasari, in Viaggio nel Nord Italia. Studi di cultura visiva in onore di Alessandro Nova, ed. D. Donetti, A. Gründler, M. Richter, Florence 2022, pp. 191-194

F. Baldinucci, Notizie dei Professori del Disegno da Cimabue in qua (1681-1728), ed. F. Ranalli, 5 vols., Florence 1845-1847; II, 1846, p. 18

S. Casadei, Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, p. 10 entry no. 16 (with earlier bibliography)

C. Grigioni, La pittura faentina dalle origini alla metà del Cinquecento, Faenza 1935, pp. 585, 591-592

M. Minardi, La Pittura Manierista, in Storia delle Arti Figurative a Faenza. Il Cinquecento, ed. M. Calogero, D. Gasparotto, M. Minardi, C. Ravanelli Guidotti, A. Tambini, G. Zavatta, Faenza 2023, pp. 28-30, 50 note 37

S. Tumidei, Studi sulla pittura in Emilia Romagna. Da Melozzo a Federico Zuccari, Trento 2011, pp. 380

Valgimigli, Dei pittori e degli artisti faentini de’ secoli XV e XVI, Faenza 1869, pp. 63-65

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

written by
Roberta Bartoli