The Burial of Christ1559. Oil on canvas, 136 x 174.5 cm.
Titian represented the Gospel account of the burial of Christ (Matthew 27: 57-61; Mark 15: 44-47; Luke 23: 50-54; John 19: 38-42) on several occasions. There is a notable difference between his first version (Paris, Louvre) of around 1526 which is clearly indebted to Raphael´s painting of that subject (Rome, Galleria Borghese), and his other versions painted between 1559 and 1572. The main difference lies in the fact that they illustrate different moments in the narrative: while the first depicts the moving of Christ´s body, the other paintings show it being placed in the tomb. The later versions were also owned by Spaniards: Philip II and Antonio Pérez. In 1557, Titian sent Philip an Entombment with half-length figures which was lost in transit. He remedied this two years later with a second version (P440) which the artist himself described in a letter to the king: Di forma più grande che non era il primo, egli mi sia nel resto ancora riuscito meglio assai, che non fece quell`altro.
Both works (P440 and P441) have similar compositions. The scene takes place in the interior of a cave or natural shelter that opens on the right onto a dimly lit landscape. Christ´s body, supported by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, is placed in the classical-style marble tomb that departs from the Judaic tradition. Around it is a group of various figures of whom the most expressive are Mary Magdalen and the Virgin. The latter holds her son´s inert arm, an action not recorded in the Gospels but mentioned in I quattro libri de la humanità di Christo by Pietro Aretino (Venice, 1538). Titian also follows Aretino in the distribution of the figures, with Nicodemus at Christ´s head, Joseph of Arimathea at his feet and the Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalen in the centre. The unusual iconography of the Virgin holding Christ´s arm -for which only one Italian precedent has been located to date, the Lamentation over the Body of Christ by Pordenone painted around 1529-30 (Cortemaggiore, church of SS. Annunziata)- was noted by Federico Borromeo, who owned an Entombment by the workshop of Titian which combined elements from the two Prado paintings (Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, inv. 199). Borromeo´s commentary, recorded in his Musaeum (1625), reveals a Counter-Reformation sensibility at odds with that of Philip II. While Borromeo criticised the Magdalen´s excessive youth, he singled out for praise the way Titian had been able to convey the Virgin´s suffering at the loss of her son. Gentili suggested that the figure of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of the artist due to its resemblance to the Self-portrait engraved by Giovanni Britto in 1550, further suggesting that the artist sympathised with Nicodemist ideas.
While the lost Entombment of 1557 was smaller in size, Titian must have re-used some elements from it for his 1559 version (Prado, P440), sent to Philip II along with the Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon. X-radiographs and infra-red reflectography show that the figure of Nicodemus was originally wearing a turban (as he is in P441) and that the Magdalen had her right hand on her breast. In the final version Mary Magdalen holds out her hands in a way similar to that found in a relief by Jacopo Sansovino of the Entombment on the door of the Sacristy in San Marco, Venice (ca. 1500), from which the diagonal perspective of the tomb is probably also taken. Christ´s inert arm is borrowed from the Bed of Polyclitus, a Roman relief which Titian had looked to just before this for his Venus and Adonis (P422).
For the Entombment (P441), he replicated the earlier composition with the help of a cartoon, indicated by the superimposition of their outlines. X-radiographs and infra-red reflectographs show that, in common with Titian´s normal practice, the transfer of the composition onto another canvas was done with hardly any changes, and that the changes visible here on the surface were only made afterwards.
The Entombment (P441) was delivered to Philip II at the Escorial in 1574 where it was intended for the Old Church. From there it passed to the Museo del Prado in 1837 (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Tiziano, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2003, pp. 399-400).