Van Dyck’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ
Christ’s dead body is laid out across the entrance to a cave, his head resting on Mary’s lap. She is wholly immersed in grief: her arms outspread, her palms open, her face averted. The Apostle John kneels to the right. He gently raises Christ’s pierced hand and shows the wounds to two angels. The figures fill the entire panel, leaving little room for glimpses of rock or the oppressive clouds. The result is a dramatic, intimate and sober scene.
Dramatic aftermath of the Crucifixion
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ is a fascinating painting. The canvas positively radiates drama, in which the horizontal format plays an important role. Van Dyck had to keep the composition low, so he painted the figures closer to the ground and positioned them at the front of the picture plane. All attention is drawn to Christ in the foreground. The large, flat stone on which he lies is like an altar. His upper body is raised slightly and is also tilted forwards. None of the figures look at you: only Christ’s body counts.
Subdued colours, raw grief
Van Dyck worked out the composition width-wise, which makes sense as it was intended as a predella – the pedestal of an altarpiece. The lines are extremely supple. The diagonal, triangular composition fills the image, helping the painter to convey the sense of grief to maximum effect. You almost feel the pain of the figures. The harmonious and subdued colours are also striking: a soft ensemble of brown and light-blue tones.
Pietà, symbolism in art
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ is a variation on the traditional Pietà, an image of Mary with the body of the dead Christ on her knees. The word ‘Pietà’ refers to Mary’s intense sympathy for the suffering of her son. Van Dyck has posed her in the shape of a cross, suggesting that the mother is experiencing the same suffering as her son. The presence of angels here seems strange at first sight. All the same, they often featured in art from the 15th century onwards, acting as guides to the dying.
Dying count as patron
Or was it the commissioner of the painting who specifically asked for the angels? As a source of comfort for himself? Van Dyck painted the work for the Italian Cesare Alessandro Scaglia, who was not only the Count of Verrua, but also an abbot, businessman and art dealer. He was very ill when he arrived in Antwerp and had an altar installed for himself in the Franciscan monastery. The gripping and serene Lamentation over the Dead Christ was intended to decorate his tomb. Scaglia died there in May 1641.
Grand master of Flemish painting
Like Rubens and Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck was one of the grand masters of 17th-century Flemish painting. The Antwerp artist was famed throughout Europe as a portrait painter. Van Dyck was charming and much loved in aristocratic circles. King Charles I of England, for instance, knighted him in 1632, making him Sir Anthony van Dyck.