The taking down of Christ’s dead body from the cross is traditionally known in art as the ‘Deposition of Christ’. Sometimes the episode is also known as the ‘Descent from the Cross’ or the ‘Lamentation of Christ’. The act is described very briefly in all four gospels (Matthew 27:55-57; Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-39).
To check that he really was dead, a Roman soldier pierced Christ’s corpse with a lance. St John’s gospel says that this was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah, which spoke of great mourning and weeping over a pierced victim (Zechariah 12:10; John 19:33-37).
Comparing the gospels, we learn that there were many people present with Christ at the cross. This included St John the Apostle, the Virgin Mary, St Mary Magdalene, St Mary (the wife of Clopas) and Salome. After his death, they were joined by two secret disciples of Christ, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus (John 19:38-39).
Joseph of Arimathaea bravely went to see the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. He asked for permission to take Christ’s body down. Only when Pilate was sure that Christ really was dead did he say yes. So Joseph, probably with help from others, unfastened Christ from the cross.
Since the gospels don’t describe the event in any detail, artists had to use their imagination when bringing it to life. They often pictured the body of Christ lying in the arms of his mourning mother. Sometimes they included ladders. Usually, they featured all of the mourners mentioned in St John’s gospel.
The grief of the Virgin Mary at the cross was foretold by Simeon during the Presentation of the Christ child at the Temple. After predicting a hard time for Christ, Simeon told his mother: “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35). This prophecy came true for her in Christ’s final hours.
This sculpted and painted scene of the Deposition of Christ is found within St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. It’s the 13th Station of the Cross and therefore one of a set. It was carved in 1875 by the respected Belgian painter, Albrecht de Vriendt. In keeping with the Gothic Revival style of the cathedral, it presents the mourners as people from the Middle Ages.
Centre-stage is the pierced body of Christ in the arms of his devastated mother. St John supports Christ’s head, while St Mary Magdalene wipes his feet, as she did earlier in life (cf John 12:3). Joseph of Arimathaea, who removed the body from the cross, stands on the right.
Nicodemus is behind St John, holding the spices he brought for the burial and talking to an assistant. St Mary, the wife of Clopas, stands behind St Mary Magdalene, outlined with a halo. The other woman is probably Salome, as stated in St Mark’s gospel (Mark 15:40).
Where to find this work of art
St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham
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