Descent from the Cross

Here you are in front of the masterpiece of Daniele da Volterra, The Descent from the Cross, painted in 1545, which has long given prestige to this church. Volterra, a friend and close collaborator of Michelangelo, was a Florentine painter, who was born in 1509 and died in 1566, and who was celebrated for a long time for the beauty of his works. Today he is also known for having painted clothing on the nudes in the Sistine Chapel!

  • center_focus_weakThe context of the scene

    The episode of The Descent from the Cross took place just after the crucifixion and the death of Jesus. Before that, Jesus had been condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea, and had had to carry his cross up to the summit of mount Golgotha where he was crucified. On the evening of the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea, an influential Jew, demanded permission to remove the body of Jesus from the cross. To ascertain that he was already dead, a Roman centurion pierced his right side with his lance and from this wound flowed blood and water. He was then brought down and wrapped in a shroud before being placed in the tomb.

    In representations of the descent from the cross, one always finds the following three people: Mary, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, one of the first disciples of Jesus. One also often finds the Apostle John and sometimes Mary Magdalene; and artists added other people.

  • assignmentDescription of the work

    The Descent from the Cross gave glory to this church for several centuries. A Renaissance painting, it demonstrates in a marvellous way some of the principles of that artistic period, such as the spatial construction of the work through its main lines and the importance of perspective to give to the canvas a true depth of field. Thus, beyond the vertical and horizontal lines which structure the frame, it is Christ’s foot at the very centre of the painting which has long been admired and tirelessly copied by painters. This forms perfectly and subtly the spatial depth of the scene with correct foreshortening. It is astonishing how all the action is built around this foot.

    Another important point about this work derives from the interpretation of the text given by the painter. In fact, Volterra, in this double scene has focused as much on the Passion of Christ – with his dead body – as on the compassion of his mother, the Virgin Mary, who has fainted and is marked by the unbearable feeling of the loss of her son. These two figures, despite the excitement around them, are intimately linked and close, by their abandoned posture (with one hand not visible in each case) and by their unconsciousness of the world around them. The painter reinterprets this scene in quite an original way since beyond the Passion of Christ, he focuses on the compassion that brings Mother and Son together. In this way, perhaps he pushes us also to take more part in the death of Jesus, and to place ourselves at the foot of the cross.

    There is another motif in this work which has inspired a good many artists: the group of weeping women around Mary. In fact, many people have seen in the representation of these three figures the right way to express the different stages of grief (going from right to left): the despair that gives rise to tears, revolt, and indignation, and finally resignation with hope in the background.

    The incredible richness of this scene, as much in the colours as in the movements and excitement, demonstrates the real ability of Volterra and the strong Mannerist imprint visible equally in the breadth of the gestures and in the expressions.

  • tag_facesMeeting the converted soldier

    Let us look for a moment at a central figure in this work: the guard who stands at the foot of the cross of the condemned man to make sure the execution is accomplished well. When Jesus gives his last breath, he recognizes publicly: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” This soldier, who did not know Jesus, sees his life change at the precise instant when Jesus dies. This person, who was at first of secondary importance, now plays a major role: it is on him that the greater part of the body of the crucified rests. It is with a real gesture of protection and reverence that he takes it into his arms. In this way, he holds his body in an almost vertical position. This posture is a sign of Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead: death no longer has the last word. Besides, he looks towards heaven and the ample movement of his clothing already suggests that he is animated and enlightened by the Spirit of God.

  • live_helpWhat is Mannerism ?

    Mannerism is an artistic style which developed all over Europe between 1520 (shortly after the Sack of Rome) until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Its name comes from the expression ‘bella maniera’. It sees the work of art as a fruit of the particular and original talent of the artist rather than the strict representation of nature. This style arrived after the Renaissance – with its perfection in grandeur, perspective and even in shades of colour to achieve the most perfect harmony. On the contrary, in Mannerism, the artists often refuse this scientific exactitude to accentuate the emotional and dramatic side of the scene (thus they do not hesitate, for example, to add muscles that do not exist in the human body to deploy more movements with greater exuberance). Figures become more serpentine, with extra torsions. A very special importance is given to drapery which often takes up much more space and accompanies or even creates the movement in the work.


This representation of Jesus shows us a God capable of sharing our sufferings. Every person, whether a believer or not, experiences suffering and injustice in the face of it. Jesus came to take upon himself all our sufferings; when he rose again from the dead, he conquered evil and death. Having known it all, he is particularly close to us when we suffer.


Whether we are believers of not, we can give to Jesus all that weighs us down, all that makes us suffer, all our fears.


Standing in front of this painting, if I wish, I can, in the secret of my heart, put down something I would like to ‘give’ to Jesus.


  • library_booksRead this passage in the Bible

    Here is the text of the Bible that relates this episode.

    ‘And it was the third hour (that is at 9:00 am), when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews”. And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So, also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, some down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

    And when the sixth hour came (that is at midday), there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (three o’clock). And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Elo-i, Elo-i, la’ma sabachtani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God”.

    There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

    And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. And he bought a linen shroud, and wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses saw where he was laid.”

    (Gospel of Mark, 15: 25-47)