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Descent from the Cross

Interpreting a scene that is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matthew 27: 57-59; Mark 15: 44-46; Luke 23: 52-53; John 19: 38-40), the Deposition of Christ, or Descent from the Cross, is rendered with far more detail than is recorded in the texts. Joseph of Arimathea lowers the dead Christ from the cross, as Nicodemus loosens the nails from his feet with a hammer and chisel. On the left, the grieving Mother of God holds Christ's hand to her face while John the Evangelist watches from the right. The Gospels recorded this episode briefly, but later theologians, such as George of Nicomedia in the ninth century, elaborated on the theme, emphasizing the piety of Joseph and the suffering of Mary. The image captures a moment of extreme pathos, yet the gestures of the figures and the classicizing style of the carving give it a reserved character, partly because of traditional Christian teaching; for example, in the fourth century, John Chrysostom had discouraged displays of grief on the grounds that they betrayed a lack of faith in the Resurrection. From the tenth century, it became permissible to depict the sorrow of the Mother of God because it emphasized a fundamental doctrine of the faith, the humanity of Christ.

Unlike precious metals, which can be melted down for their bullion value, or bronze, which, like gold and silver, can be re-used, carved ivory is very limited in terms of secondary adaptation, a fact that has allowed a large number of examples to survive. The ones that do survive constitute an important class within Byzantine art. The density of ivory allowed its carvers to achieve virtuoso levels of craftsmanship, seen here in the delicate filigree of the baldachin and its supporting columns as well as in the sensitive modeling of drapery folds, for example, along the lower edge of Nicodemus's robe. The background is so thin that it is translucent when held up to light. Nevertheless, it has remained intact despite two large cracks on either side of Christ's head. This carver has exploited the plastic qualities of the material in the imposing, statuesque figure of the Virgin, while still enlivening the composition with the dynamic gestures of both arms and legs of Joseph and Nicodemus.

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