Gerard David was a successful artist working in Bruges. By 1515 he was registered as a Master in the Guild of Image Makers in both Bruges and Antwerp, apparently in order to sell in both cities. He ran both workshops at the same time, which ensured great productivity, and his assistants carefully emulated his style. Scientific investigation of this painting has revealed skilful underdrawing which probably indicates the hand of the master, and it is typical of David’s work in its careful attention to detail, coupled with an expressive mood. David’s religious paintings often have an emotionally charged meditational quality, which is particularly evident here.
In religious paintings artists frequently depicted varying moments directly following on from the Crucifixion. These variously take the form of ‘lamentations’, which include a group of mourners or, as in this instance, a ‘pietà’ (meaning both piety and pity), where the single figure of Christ’s mother contemplates and supports the lifeless body of her son. Here the absence of a cross and the inclusion of the rocks behind the two figures foretell the entombment. The positioning of the dead Christ at an angle across the Virgin’s knee derives from Rogier van der Weyden, who utilised this device to simplify his compositions, increasingly avoiding difficult foreshortening and distracting perspectival trickery. The Virgin’s face is profoundly sorrowful and tipped at an angle to mimic that of the dead Christ, so that the two are united in action. The barren wilderness seems to accord with the sadness of the scene as the curve of the rocks and the trees behind echo the line of Christ’s torso.
David was celebrated as an innovator of landscape backgrounds. The landscape here is carefully constructed to heighten the impact of the work. The blue-grey tones of the distant town appear melancholy and still, thereby facilitating the function of this work as a channel for quiet contemplation and prayer. The crown of thorns serves as a reminder of Christ’s recent torture. The skull of Adam alludes to the next stage of the story (from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus), where the dead Christ enters hell and redeems the Old Testament figure of Adam - symbolising the salvation of all mankind.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011