Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

It’s those jaw-dropping moments we just happen upon as we drift through foreign places that make travel so exciting, and addictive. The heat was sizzling in Florence on the afternoon of 18 July 2007 when I flew through the door of the rather non-descript and gloomy Santa Felicità; it was 4.50pm, 10 minutes before closing. There it was to the right: Pontormo’s altarpiece in the Capponi chapel: ‘The Descent from the Cross’. I had to view it through black wrought-iron bars, but the dazzling colour, and tangle of restless bodies barely contained within the frame, was eye-popping. When I think of the Italian artist, Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo (1494-1557), I think of this mesmerising masterpiece, which he painted between 1526 and 1528  . . . and I think of Florence: Tuscany was Pontormo’s birth-place, and the place of his revolutionary art.


I had been drifting around Florence that day . . . We will simply drift says Miss Lavish to Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ (1908). Lucy joins Miss Lavish, an eccentric novelist, to find the church of Santa Croce in Florence. The two women soon become lost. Lucy tries to consult her Baedeker travel guide, but Miss Lavish will have none of it. She tells Lucy, “No, you are not, not to look at your Baedeker. We will simply drift.” They eventually find Santa Croce, but Lucy lacks the confidence to make her own judgments about art; she longs for her Baedeker guide so that she can know “good art” from bad. Lucy wants to know which frescoes have been pronounced by the critics to be “truly beautiful”.

I will reserve my thoughts on Lucy Honeychurch’s assessment of the art of Santa Croce for another time, and my praise for Bronzino’s evocative ‘Christ in Limbo’, which is situated in this important Florentine church (Bronzino was Pontormo’s apprentice and adopted son) . . .  so back to Santa Felicità and Pontormo  . . . and his “truly beautiful” altarpiece. In ‘The Descent from the Cross’, also called The Deposition, Entombment, Pieta, Lamentation, Pontormo absorbed and transformed classical antecedents into something new.


Pontormo was often described as mean-spirited, melancholy and unattractive by those who knew him, but his art exploded with vibrant colour and invention that trumpeted the move from Michelangelo’s High Renaissance to the establishment of Mannerism. Actually, many art historians suggest that Michelangelo led the way with his use of colour and exaggerated poses. Take for example Michelangelo’s  exquisite Libyan Sibyl (image below), which he painted in vivid colour on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel nearly twenty years before Pontormo painted The Deposition: the beauty and grace captured within the rhythms of the sibyl’s powerfully rendered, twisted body as she holds up her book and looks down, conforms to the art-historical sense of maniera.


The notion that Mannerist art not only discarded the harmonious compositions of Renaissance classicism but intended to shock, especially in the interpretation of the subject matter, can perhaps be partially understood in terms of the social, political and scientific turmoil of the time. The Reformation in 1517 marked the beginning of a spiritual and religious crisis.  After the death of Raphael in 1520, a so-called decadence crept into Italian art, particularly in Florence and Rome: this controversial art-historical period (approximately 1520-1600) was called Mannerism.


Unlike Michelangelo, who tempered his use of colour, Pontormo’s sharply brilliant colour harmonies partner with the distortions and affected poses to create tension. In The Deposition, Pontormo’s expressive use of clashing vibrant colours and varied poses, uniformly small heads and elongated limbs heighten the emotional drama. Overall, the skin colours are harmonious—except for the young man crouching and holding Jesus’ legs: his flesh is a bright, unnatural pink (detail shown above).

The bodies more or less displace the space and crowd the composition, pushing into the viewer’s space and blotting out the setting which may give clues as to the subject matter. The rotational movement creates a swooning effect, even for the viewer—it wasn’t just the heat that affected me when I was looking at this painting. I found it difficult to work out what was going on: subject matter is overwhelmed by colour and tangled bodies. Pontormo was a leader in this new ornamental style, which emerged as a psychological simplification of the narrative, a rhythm, and a subdued beauty exuding exquisite spiritual grace.


The art historian who was instrumental in attempting to pin down the Mannerist style of the early sixteenth century was John Shearman. In his book, ‘Mannerism’ (first published in 1967) he describes the Mannerist style as strange and expressive with a sensuous grace, a highly charged sentiment, and compositional devices that are intended to draw the viewer into the action. Shearman called Mannerism the “stylish style”, or maniera, for its emphasis on “self-conscious artifice over realistic depiction of the subject matter”. This wilful, often perverse, yet mostly graceful artistic style challenged the traditional emphasis on the “truthful” depiction of the subject of the work.

Unique presentations of conventional themes, particularly religious images, surfaced.  However, even though the subject of Mannerist art may be ambiguous, there are notable layers of symbolic and spiritual meaning. In fact, Shearman describes Pontormo’s The Deposition as an unambiguous picture in that it makes a very direct reference to the “timeless mystery of Redemption, of Death and Resurrection”.


facePontormo’s contemporary biographer, Giorgio Vasari, was convinced that this painting “contains a Dead Christ deposed from the Cross who is being carried to the tomb …” For me, this is the moment in between, when Christ has been taken from Mary’s lap following his removal from the Cross; she is swooning as she gestures towards her Son. One can only guess if the figure of Mary Magdalene is amongst the tangle of weightless figures expressing their grief. The bearded man wearing a hat at the right behind Mary’s left elbow, and looking at, or even past, the viewer, is thought to be a self-portrait by the artist.

Most Italian cities and churches make me realise that for centuries art was primarily religious, and commissioned for churches, intended to convey Bible stories and events featuring the Passion of Christ. These ‘stories’ could be ‘read’ by the illiterate, allowing them to contemplate the messages, and in doing so, enrich their devotion. This art wasn’t created for a museum context in which we now, probably for the most part, encounter it. It wasn’t intended for the disinterested appraisal of the appreciator. So, stumbling upon a timeless work of art in the place where it was originally created, all on my own and without the use of a guide-book, is always exciting.




Painting details: Jacopo Da Pontormo, ‘The Deposition’, 1525-1528, oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm, Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicità, Florence.

The images have been taken from




Categories: Musings on Art

One Response so far.

  1. maria sweeney says:

    thank you for sharing your experience, which was/is similar to mine. I am in Florence right now to appreciate Pontormo’s painting without iron bars.

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