Guest of Honor: Titian’s Entombment of Christ
From March 4 until June 12, the Kimbell will display one of Titian’s most compelling masterpieces, The Entombment of Christ, on loan from the Museo del Prado, Madrid. Created by the Venetian painter at the height of his illustrious career, the work displays the mastery of color and expressive brushwork that have earned Titian an unrivaled reputation even to this day.
Following the Gospel account, Titian depicts Christ’s burial taking place in a rocky cave, indicated at left. However, details of the imagery conform with the description of the event in The Humanity of Christ (1535) by his friend Pietro Aretino—the white sheet underneath Christ, the Virgin grasping her son’s arm, incredulous that his hands had been pierced with nails, and Nicodemus supporting Christ’s upper body, with Joseph of Arimathea at his feet and between them the Virgin, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene. The monumentalized figures, along with Titian’s fractured brushwork and chromatic splendor, convey the anguish of the scene. Heightening the drama, the Magdalene rushes forward in a flux of light, her ethereal form dematerializing to suggest the spirit, countering the harsh corporality of Christ’s muscular body. Nicodemus is probably a self-portrait of Titian, who thereby bears witness to Christ’s sacrifice.
The authority of classical antiquity pervades the composition. On the stone sarcophagus are depicted scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac and Cain and Abel—Old Testament events that prefigure Christ’s sacrifice. A small tablet is inscribed with Titian’s name and “AEQVES CAES.”—imperial knight—an honor bestowed on Titian by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The Entombment was commissioned by the emperor’s son, King Philip II of Spain, Titian’s greatest patron. The painting’s emotional power and complexity made it particularly meaningful to the monarch. In 1574, the painting was transferred to the Escorial—the royal residence and monastery northwest of Madrid. It was hung above an altar in the Old Church, where the bodies of members of the royal family had been temporarily interred. From a window in his austere bedchamber, the devout king could view the altar—and contemplate his own mortality.