This altarpiece was painted for the chapel of the Passion of Christ in the church of the Gesù, in Rome, the headquarters of the Jesuit order. Its style was intended to complement the austere interior space of the church. Pulzone’s canvas is conceived not as a narrative but as a meditation on the Entombment of Christ, in line with Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Details such as the tears of the Virgin, the crown of thorns held by Saint John, and the pallor of Christ’s body are presented to the viewer for contemplation. Pulzone’s brand of realism made him an important exponent of Counter Reformation art.
This important, though abraded, painting was commissioned in 1589 as the altarpiece of the Passion Chapel (the second on the right) in the Jesuit church of Il Gesù in Rome. It thus belonged to one of the key decorative enterprises of the late sixteenth century—the decoration of the Jesuits' mother church—and is considered a prime example of devotional art during the period of the Counter-Reformation (or Catholic reform, in response to the Protestant Reformation). Its style has been described as "senza tempo" (Zeri 1957)—which is to say, a "timeless" art that emphasized devotional function over those qualities that cultivated viewers had come to associate with artistic merit, such as mastery of elegant poses and complex foreshortenings, expressive intensity and dramatic moment. Critics such as Giovanni Andrea Gilio, in his 1564 treatise on painting, criticized the inclusion of nude or elaborately posed figures or ingenious compositions that called attention to the artist's imaginative abilities rather than to the subject treated. What he advocated was painting that was honest, humble, devout, clear, and rigorously faithful to sanctioned texts. Pulzone's Lamentation can thus be seen as offering the viewer-worshipper a carefully conceived focus for meditation: the pallor of the dead Christ, serene in death; the dignified sorrow of the Virgin, shown with tears coursing down her cheeks; the affecting lament of Mary Magdalen, who places her cheek lovingly on Christ's leg while her blond hair hangs in long tresses extending to his feet, which she cradles in her hands—a reminder that, as a converted prostitute, she once had dried those same feet with her hair. Christ's body, laid on the lap of his mother, is supported by Joseph of Arimathea; John—the beloved disciple—contemplates the crown of thorns he holds in his hands; a group of holy women weep silently at the left, their expressions carefully varied. Behind them, set against a distant landscape and cloud-scudded sky, is the ominous base of the cross and the ladders used to remove Jesus from it. The figures are placed close to the picture plane and brightly lit from the left. Pulzone signed the picture on the edge of the cloth used to support Christ—a sort of personal testimony.
The patroness of the Chapel of the Passion was Bianca Mellini, the wife of Giovanni Lomellini, who came from an old Roman family and who had been a benefactor of the church. She was granted rights to the chapel in 1588, paying out 2,000 scudi over the next nine years (see Bailey 2003). Pulzone received payments amounting to 100 scudi on February 7 and 9, 1590; the picture is dated 1593 (and not 1591, as was repeatedly reported prior to Baumstark ) and it was probably in place by that February, when the chapel was consecrated by Cardinal Ludovico de Torres. It is explicitly mentioned during the papal visit of Pope Clement VIII on January 4, 1594: remarkably, he commented that Mary Magdalen should be altered "to have a more devout appearance" (Ad Cappellam Passionis. Imago Beatae Mariae Magdalena ibidem depicti in magis devotam speciem redigatur).
According to Baglione (1642) the program for the further decoration of the chapel, still intact, was entrusted to the Jesuit painter-architect Giuseppe Valeriano (1542–1596); Bailey (2003), however, has argued that it was, instead, entrusted to the painter-priest Giovanni Battista Fiammeri (ca. 1530–1606) working with Gaspare Celio (1571–1640), who beginning in August 1596 was responsible for painting the frescoes and lateral canvases. The lateral canvases show Christ on the road to Calvary and Christ nailed to the cross, while the frescoed cupola, pendentives and lunettes depict angels holding the instruments of the Passion, the Evangelists, and scenes of the Passion. The static composition and meditative quality of Pulzone's altarpiece contrasts with the more highly emotive, vigorous style of Celio's paintings and accords with the objectives of the Spiritual Exercises composed by Saint Ignatius Loyola between 1522 and 1524.
Between 1674 and 1686, Pulzone’s altarpiece was substituted by a canvas painted by Andrea Pozzo of Saint Francis Borgia, and this work, in turn, was replaced with a wood crucifix. All trace of Pulzone’s altarpiece was lost until 1841, when it was described in admiring terms in the catalogue of the collection of Cardinal Joseph Fesch in Palazzo Falconieri, Rome. Zeri (1957) identified the picture with the altarpiece for Il Gesù.
[Keith Christiansen 2013]
Inscription: Signed and dated (right, on cloth held by Joseph of Arimathea): SCIPIO CAIET[A] / NVS FACI[E] / BAT AN[NO] DNI / MD.XCIII
Cappella della Passione, Il Gesù, Rome (by 1594); Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Palazzo Falconieri, Rome (until d. 1839; cat., 1841, no. 2419); ?[Hammer Galleries, New York, by 1946]; private collection, New York (until 1951; sale, Kende Galleries, New York, March 3, 1951, no. 55); ?Father Hickey, Saint Mary's Cloister, Detroit (until about 1975; ?sold to Corsini); [Piero Corsini, New York, until 1984; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Caravaggio," February 5–April 14, 1985, no. 50.
Naples. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. "Caravaggio e il suo tempo," May 14–June 30, 1985, no. 50.
Milwaukee. Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University. "Jesuit Art in North American Collections," March 7–June 16, 1991, no. 10.
Boston. McMullen Museum of Art. "Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image," February 1–May 24, 1999, unnumbered cat.
Gaeta. Museo Diocesano. "Scipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee," June 27–October 27, 2013, no. 35 (as "Pietà").
Pope Clement VIII. Papal visit. January 4, 1594 [Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome, FG 545, 8a; see Bailey 2003, pp. 211, 346 n. 165], remarks that the Magdalen should be altered to have a more devout appearance.
Jesuit memorial. [17th century] [Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome, FG 545, 2a; published in Ref. Bailey 2003, pp. 209, 344 n. 146], states that the Cappella della Passione in Il Gesù was painted by Pulzone, with other works in the chapel by Gaspare Celio after designs by Fiammeri.
Jesuit memorial. ca. 1616 [Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome, AG Busta I, 78; published in Ref. Bailey 2003, pp. 209, 344 n. 141], notes that the patron of the chapel was Bianca Mellini Lomellini and that work was begun before 1595.
Gaspare Celio. Memoria delli nomi dell'artefici delle pitture, che sono in alcune chiese, facciate, e palazzi di Roma. repr., 1967. Naples, 1638, p. 41, lists it as by Scipione Pulzone above the altar in the Cappella della Passione in Il Gesù; notes that the ceiling fresco and wall paintings are by himself.
Gio[vanni]. Baglione. Le vite de' pittori, scultori et architetti: dal Pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino a' tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642. Rome, 1642, pp. 54, 83, describes it as in the second chapel on the right in Il Gesù, and attributes it to Scipione Pulzone; credits Giuseppe Valeriano with the design of the paintings executed by Celio.
Giov. Battista Mola. Breve racconto delle miglior opere d'architettura, scultura et pittura fatte in Roma et alcuni fuor di Roma. 1663, p. 189 [Biblioteca Vaticana and Biblioteca Comunale, Viterbo; published in Quellen und Schriften zur bildenden Kunst, vol. 1, ed. Karl Noehles, 1966, Berlin, p. 118].
Filippo Titi. Studio di pittura, scoltura, et architettura, nelle chiese di Roma. Roma, 1674 [reprint, Bruno Contardi and Serena Romano, eds., Florence, 1987, vol. 1, p. 100], attributes the altarpiece to Pulzone and the other paintings to Celio after designs by Fiammeri.
Filippo Titi. Ammaestramento utile, e curioso di pittura scoltura et architettura nelle chiese di Roma. Rome, 1686, p. 149.
Filippo de' Rossi. Descrizione di Roma moderna formata nvovamente. Rome, 1697, p. 532.
Filippo de' Rossi. Descrizione di Roma antica; Descrizione di Roma moderna. Vol. 2, Descrizione di Roma moderna. Rome, 1708, p. 558.
Ottavio Pancirolo, Francesco Cecconi, and Francesco Posterla. Roma sacra, e moderna: già descritta dal Pancirolo ed accresciuta da Francesco Posterla. Rome, 1725, p. 606.
Pietro Rossini. Il Mercurio errante. 7th ed. Rome, 1750, p. 161.
Filippo Titi. Descrizione delle pitture, sculture, e architetture esposte al pubblico in Roma. Rome, 1763, p. 173.
Catalogue des tableaux composant la galerie de feu son éminence le cardinal Fesch. Rome, 1841, p. 100, no. 2419, as "'Jésus mort est déposé sur les genoux de la Vierge.' Les personnages de ce tableau sont plus grands que nature. Cette composition due au pinceau de Scipion Gaetano, se fait remarquer par sa belle entente et une profonde expression de douleur. Le style en est noble et large, le coloris d'un beau ton, et l'exécution parfaite dans toutes les parties," 8 pieds 9 pouces high by 5 pieds 9 pouces wide.
Pio Pecchiai. Il Gesù di Roma. Rome, 1952, pp. 93, 105–6, states that when it was removed from the chapel, it was replaced by a wooden crucifix.
Federico Zeri. Pittura e controriforma: l'arte senza tempo di Scipione da Gaeta. Turin, 1957, pp. 68–69, 73, 79, 82–83, 111 n. 47, figs. 90 and 91 (overall and detail), as signed and dated 1591; says that it was removed from the altar of the Chapel of the Passion in the seventeenth century and that he rediscovered it in a private collection in New York; notes the importance of the guidance and ideas of the Jesuit architect Valeriano who also acted as Pulzone's agent for this picture; discusses the eclecticism of the painting's sources but stresses that a classicizing ideal predominates.
Milton Joseph Lewine. "The Roman Church Interior, 1527–1580." PhD diss., Columbia University, 1960, p. 247, notes that this altarpiece was replaced by a painting of Saint Francis Borgia by Andrea Pozzo sometime between 1674 and 1686, and that the Pozzo was later replaced by a gilded wooden crucifix.
S. J. Freedberg. Painting in Italy: 1500 to 1600. Harmondsworth, England, 1971, p. 459.
Howard Hibbard. "'Ut picturae sermones': The First Painted Decorations of the Gesù." Baroque Art: The Jesuit Contribution. Ed. Rudolph Wittkower and Irma B. Jaffe. New York, 1972, pp. 38, 44, fig. 27, calls the picture "moving and sharply focused," and suggests that its concentrated emotionality foreshadows the late Pietàs of Annibale Carracci.
Erasmo Vaudo. Scipione Pulzone da Gaeta, pittore. Gaeta, 1976, pp. 37–38, fig. 39, discusses this picture in relation to Counter-Reformation aesthetics.
Maria Letizia Casanova. Arte a Gaeta: dipinti dal XII al XVIII secolo. Exh. cat., Palazzo De Vio, Gaeta. Florence, 1976, p. 92.
Morton Colp Abromson. Painting in Rome during the Papacy of Clement VIII (1592–1605): A Documented Study. PhD diss., Columbia University. New York, 1981, pp. 226–27.
Luigi Spezzaferro. "Il recupero del Rinascimento." Storia dell'arte italiana. part 2, vol. 2, part 1, Turin, 1981, pp. 234, 238.
Keith Christiansen inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1983–1984. New York, 1984, pp. 62–63, ill. (color), states that it is dated 1591, but was underway in 1590 when Scipione received partial payment for the altarpiece; calls it one of Pulzone's most affecting works and stresses that it fulfills the ideals of the first building campaign at Il Gesù; suggests that the artist's signature on the hem of the cloth that Joseph of Arimathea wraps around Christ's torso points to the special importance that the artist attached to this work.
Alessandro Zuccari inThe Age of Caravaggio. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1985, pp. 172–73, no. 50, ill. (color) [Italian ed., "Caravaggio e il suo tempo," Naples, 1985], discusses the iconography in terms of Saint Ignatius's "Spiritual Exercises" and associates the composition with the Saint's method of the "compositio loci".
Andrea Bacchi et al. inLa pittura in Italia: il Cinquecento. Ed. Giuliano Briganti. revised and expanded ed. [Milan], 1988, vol. 2, p. 462, notes that here Pulzone adopted a pictorial idiom rich in pathos, perhaps after coming in contact with the Lombard Giovan Battista Pozzo, who painted the angels in the vault of the Madonna della Strada chapel, also in the Gesù.
Anna Lo Bianco inLa pittura in Italia: il Cinquecento. Ed. Giuliano Briganti. revised and expanded ed. [Milan], 1988, vol. 2, p. 815.
J. Patrice Marandel inJesuit Art in North American Collections. Exh. cat., Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University. Milwaukee, 1991, pp. 17, 23, 45, no. 10, ill. (overall) and color detail on cover.
S. J. Freedberg. Painting in Italy 1500–1600. 3rd ed. New Haven, 1993, pp. 661, 664, discusses it along with Pulzone's other works of the period, noting that the schematization of these pictures conveys "after the first impact, a sense of vacancy".
Laura Russo inRoma di Sisto V: Le arti e la cultura. Ed. Maria Luisa Madonna. Exh. cat., Palazzo Venezia, Rome. Rome, 1993, pp. 173, 175, dates it 1597 and notes its importance in understanding the artistic relationship between Pulzone and Giuseppe Valeriano.
Loren Partridge. The Art of Renaissance Rome 1400–1600. New York, 1996, pp. 98–99, 101, ill. (color), sees it is an example of "arte senza tempo" (art without time)—vaguely classicizing, neither modern nor historical variations on works of the high renaissance which, remain "the basis of much saccharine religious art to this day"; observes that works of this kind, in the decorously restrained and simpler style of the Counter Reformation, was intended primarily to stir piety in viewers with little aesthetic sophistication.
Fiorenza Rangoni inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 25, New York, 1996, p. 730.
Augusto Donò. "Scipione Pulzone (1545–1598), il pittore della 'Madonna della Divina Provvidenza'." Barnabiti Studi 13 (1996), pp. 17–18, 72–74, no. 36 II.
Reinhold Baumstark inRom in Bayern: Kunst und Spiritualität der ersten Jesuiten. Ed. Reinhold Baumstark. Exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Munich, 1997, pp. 454–55, 458–61, no. 137, ill. (color), reviews the history of the chapel and the Jesuit program of the altarpiece and corrects the date in the inscription to 1593.
Gauvin Alexander Bailey et al. inSaints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image. Ed. Franco Mormando. Exh. cat., McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College. Chestnut Hill, Mass., 1999, pp. 29–30, 81 nn. 14–15, 113–14, 129 nn. 41–50, pp. 157–58, 173 nn. 42–44, colorpl. 1, notes that the moment shown in the painting, and the inclusion of Nicodemus, correspond to verse no. 298 of St. Ignatius's "Exercises"; finds the individualization of each figure's emotions and gestures compelling, contesting Partridge's characterization of this work as "saccharine religious art" [see Ref. Partridge 1996]; points out that the artist uses the same model for the figure of the Magdalen in the MMA picture and the Crucifixion in the Chiesa Nuova, Rome.
Gauvin Alexander Bailey. Between Renaissance and Baroque: Jesuit Art in Rome, 1565–1610. Toronto, 2003, pp. 198, 208–11, 344 nn. 142, 144, 146, p. 345 n. 155, fig. 99, attributes the design of Celio's paintings to Fiammeri rather than Valeriano.
Alexandra Dern. Scipione Pulzone (ca. 1546–1598). Weimar, 2003, pp. 75, 162–63, no. 54, pl. 72.
Philippe Costamagna. "Les tableaux des écoles d'Italie centrale du XVIe siècle dans la collection Fesch." Le goût pour la peinture italienne autour de 1800, prédécesseurs, modèles et concurrents du cardinal Fesch. Ed. Olivier Bonfait et al. Ajaccio, 2006, pp. 75, 80 nn. 87, 88, fig. 4, identifies it as no. 2419 in the 1841 catalogue of the collection of Cardinal Fesch; notes that it is not known when the cardinal acquired it and that the picture was not included in the Fesch sale of 1845.
Patrizia Tosini inFederico Zeri, dietro l'immagine: opere d'arte e fotografia. Ed. Anna Ottani Cavina. Exh. cat., Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna. Turin, 2009, pp. 70, 74, fig. 1.
Xavier F. Salomon inScipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee. Ed. Alessandra Acconci and Alessandro Zuccari. Exh. cat., Museo Diocesano, Gaeta. Rome, 2013, pp. 362–65, no. 35, ill. (overall in color and detail in b&w).
Anna Imponente inScipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee. Ed. Alessandra Acconci and Alessandro Zuccari. Exh. cat., Museo Diocesano, Gaeta. Rome, 2013, p. 21.
Antonio Vannugli inScipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee. Ed. Alessandra Acconci and Alessandro Zuccari. Exh. cat., Museo Diocesano, Gaeta. Rome, 2013, pp. 30, 57 n. 36.
Alessandro Zuccari inScipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee. Ed. Alessandra Acconci and Alessandro Zuccari. Exh. cat., Museo Diocesano, Gaeta. Rome, 2013, pp. 84–85.
Gianni Carlo Sciolla inScipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee. Ed. Alessandra Acconci and Alessandro Zuccari. Exh. cat., Museo Diocesano, Gaeta. Rome, 2013, p. 182.
Adriano Amendola inScipione Pulzone: da Gaeta a Roma alle corti europee. Ed. Alessandra Acconci and Alessandro Zuccari. Exh. cat., Museo Diocesano, Gaeta. Rome, 2013, pp. 218, 222–23.
Keith Christiansen. "La création tardive d'une collection de peintures baroques au Metropolitan Museum of Art / Creating a Baroque Collection at the Metropolitan Late in the Game." Aux origines d'un goût: la peinture baroque aux États-Unis / Creating the Taste for Baroque Painting in America. Paris, 2015, pp. 67, 72.
Clare Robertson. Rome 1600: The City and the Visual Arts under Clement VIII. New Haven, 2015, pp. 187, 189, 205, fig. 173 (color), notes that despite Clement's (1594) criticism of the figure of Mary Magdalen, there is no evidence that it was altered.