The Kimbell Art Museum will display one of Titian’s most compelling, poignant masterpieces, The Entombment of Christ, on loan from the Museo del Prado, Madrid. Created by the preeminent 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. The work is on view in the Kimbell’s original Kahn Building. Admission is free.
Following the Gospel account, Titian (Titziano Vecellio, 1477–1576) depicts Christ’s burial taking place in a cave or rocky shelter, indicated at left and opening to a cloudy landscape at right. However, details of the imagery conform with the way the action is described in The Humanity of Christ (1535) by Titian’s friend, the writer and art critic Pietro Aretino. The devotional text narrates how Christ’s servants placed his body on “a snow white sheet” for burial after he was taken down from the cross. It also describes how the grieving Virgin grasped her son’s limp arm—an action not recounted in the Gospels—incredulous that his hands had been pierced with nails. As in Aretino’s narrative, Titian portrays Nicodemus supporting Christ’s upper body, with Joseph of Arimathea at his feet and between them the Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalene.
In the painting, the figures are monumentalized, scarcely contained within the frame. Titian’s extraordinary chromatic splendor and loose, fractured brushwork convey the anguish of the scene. The vibrant white of Christ’s shroud is offset by the intense blue of the Virgin’s mantle and silken red of Joseph’s robe, whose hue suggests Christ’s blood, drained from his lifeless body. Heightening the drama, the Magdalene rushes forward with open arms in a flux of light. Titian initially placed her right arm higher, and a pentimento of this second hand, closer to Saint John, is now visible. Instead of her traditional red garb, the Magdalene is dressed in white, her ethereal form dematerializing to suggest the spirit, countering the harsh corporality of Christ’s muscular body. The bearded Nicodemus is probably a self-portrait of Titian, who thereby bears witness to Christ’s sacrifice.
The Entombment also has an illustrious history: it was commissioned by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V’s son, King Philip II of Spain—Titian’s greatest patron, for whom the Venetian master produced some 25 paintings. In a letter of 1559 to Philip II, Titian wrote that along with Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon (his celebrated mythological paintings, or poesie), he was sending an Entombment to replace his picture of the same subject that had been lost in transit two years earlier. Titian seized this unhappy incident to reconsider the composition, remarking that he was pleased that the second version was not only larger but also more successful than the earlier work. Indeed, its emotional power and the fervor of Titian’s agitated brushwork place The Entombment among his greatest achievements.