In the Gospels Mary Magdalene and another Mary watch Joseph of Arimathea wrap Jesus' body in a linen cloth and lay it in a monumentum excisum de petra, that is, a tomb hewn out from a crag or rock.1 But in the West images of the Entombment usually ignore the gospel accounts and have the disciples lay the body in a free-standing sarcophagus while Mary presses a kiss on Jesus' left cheek. Fra Angelico does use the gospel accounts (at right), but few others follow his lead. In the tradition, Mary Magdalene and other women lament over the body with gestures of sorrow echoing those used in Crucifixion images:
Another quite different way of picturing the entombment is the "Man of Sorrows" image type, which is not so much a narrative as an occasion for devotional contemplation of Christ as the "suffering servant" of Isaiah 53,3-5:
Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.The imagery of the Man of Sorrows began in 12th-century icons in the East, where it is thought to have been modeled on the Holy Shroud, which was on display in Constantinople until the sack of 1204.2 By the 14th century it had gained great popularity in the West. The fresco below exemplifies the iconography in its fullest form: The wounded body is seen waist-up, standing in a sarcophagus and supported by Mary and John. The viewer contemplates the crown of thorns, the wounds in Jesus' hands and side, and his sorrowful expression. In this example and some others, objects from the Passion narrative provide further opportunity for meditation. The hands may be held up by Mary and John as in this example, but more commonly they are posed so as to emphasize the nail-wounds, either crossed at the wrist as in the second picture at right or hanging disconsolately, as in this example. Like those two examples, many will omit Mary and John and leave only the body for contemplation. Rarely, the Man of Sorrows will be pictured full-length and covered in blood, either accompanied by saints (example) or solo (example). Some examples emphasize the relation between Jesus' sacrificial suffering and the Eucharist. In this one, for example, the sarcophagus is reimagined as an altar. And in this one the Man of Sorrows stands in a chalice.
The inspirational power of the Man of Sorrows image is attested by no less than Teresa of Avila, whose life was changed by it:
It came to pass one day, when I went into the oratory, that I saw a picture which they had put by there.… It was a representation of Christ most grievously wounded, and so devotional, that the very sight of it, when I saw it, moved me – so well did it show forth that which He suffered for us. So keenly did I feel the evil return I had made for those wounds, that I thought my heart was breaking. I threw myself on the ground beside it, my tears flowing plenteously, and implored Him to strengthen me once for all, so that I might never offend Him any more.… I was now very distrustful of myself, placing all my confidence in God.3
A third way of imagining the entombment is seen Latin countries, where church visitors will sometimes find life-size sculptures of the wounded and bleeding Christ in glass-sided coffins (example). These are taken out and used in processions during Holy Week. Fernandez adapts this genre in his Dead Christ.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-14, 2018-01-07.
Diptych of the Anastasis and the Resurrection of Lazarus, 13th-14th century. See the description page.MORE ENTOMBMENT IMAGES