The Deposition by Rosso Fiorentino
The Deposition (or Lamentation over the Dead Christ) of Sansepolcro is an oil painting on canvas (270 × 201 cm) by Rosso Fiorentino. It dates back to 1528 and is housed in Sansepolcro’s Church of San Lorenzo.
The work was inspired above all by Volterra’s Deposition (1521), from which the background with the cross, the three ladders, and the figure on the left ladder are drawn. As stated in the contract, the iconography was decided by clients. In line with the Gospel of Matthew, the scene is set at night, after the sky had suddenly darkened following Christ’s death (27, 45, 57). The moment depicted, however, is later as the body of Christ, oddly nude and with an unusually distended chest, has already been taken down from the cross and offered to the grieving onlookers. The light focuses mainly on the characters in the foreground, relegating instead the background to darkness.
The focus of the composition is undoubtedly Mary, her arms extended upward, and Christ’s lifeless body, supported on the right by a bald Nicodemus and on the left by a curly-haired, physically powerful youth, recalls Michelangelo. The light lingers especially on this latter figure, highlighting his light-colored garment with floral embroidery. The figure of Mary, overcome by grief, refers iconographically to that of Mary Magdalene in 14th-century Italian art, through the position of her arms, with which she seems to relive the crucifixion. She is supported by a bearded man with a red turban, Joseph of Arimathea, as well as by a young veiled woman: an in-depth iconographic interpretation proposed by Darragon sees them respectively as symbols of the Christian West and the exotic East.
Immediately below the figure of Nicodemus is Mary Magdalene, in the foreground on the right. She is depicted wearing a beautiful robe and a very elaborate hair style that are similar to those of the unidentified figure to the left, also in the foreground, caught in the act of washing the body of Christ. The light creates remarkable iridescent effects on the clothes of the two female figures.
Behind all the figures described above are other disturbing characters shrouded in darkness. One is an ape-faced onlooker holding a shield in hand, directly above the head of the woman veiled in black, who gazes harshly at the viewer with crossed eyes. This is probably a reference to the man-at-arms theme, a symbol of the human evil and treachery that condemned Christ to the cross. Vasari recalls how Rosso actually owned a monkey called Bertuccione.
Compared to Volterra’s Deposition, we find an evolution here with regard to the dramatic sense of participation in the tragic event. Indeed, it is not a deposition, but Mary’s lamentation over the dead body of her Son. The crystal clear sky of Volterra’s work has been replaced by a dark background, by an eclipse of Evangelical memory. The hairstyles are extremely elaborate, reminiscent of what was seen in Rome among Raphael’s followers and Parmigianino’s works.
Recently arrived in town after fleeing the sack of Rome, Rosso was commissioned the work on 23 September 1527 by the Confraternity of the Holy Cross (hence the choice of subject) for their altar in the Sansepolcro Church of Santa Croce. This commission was handed over willingly by the local painter Raffaellino del Colle, so that “something of his own [i.e., by Rosso] remained” in the city, as Vasari recalled. It is very likely that Rosso had to give a series of drawings to his colleague as a way to thank him, a bit like what had happened in Perugia. Traces of Rosso’s rather noticeable influence are found, for example, in Raffaellino’s Coronation of the Virgin in the town museum (1526-1527), where there are “Roman-style” figures, a Magdalene reminiscent of the kneeling female saints of the Pala Dei, and a unique iridescence and billowing of the draperies, especially those of the saint. The commission was endorsed and assisted by Bishop Leonardo Tornabuoni, previously Rosso’s client in Rome and who had also recently returned to this city so as to flee from the sack.
The altarpiece must have been completed by 1 July 1528, when the artist signed a new contract for a Christ in Glory in Città di Castello.
In 1554 the company transferred all of its assets, including this painting, to the Benedictine nuns. The nuns then erected the Church of San Lorenzo, where the work is located still today.