The Meditation on the Passion

Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, Venice 1460/66?–1525/26 Venice)

ca. 1490
Oil and tempera on wood
Overall 27 3/4 x 34 1/8in. (70.5 x 86.7cm); painted surface 26 3/16 × 33 1/4 in. (66.5 × 84.5 cm)
Credit Line:
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    This extraordinary work by Carpaccio is a landmark in the history of devotional images. It is, in effect, a meditation on the theme of Death and Resurrection. To the right, the Old Testament figure Job sits on a block inscribed in pseudo-Hebrew, while on the left, portrayed as a hermit, is Saint Jerome (ca. 347–420), who wrote a commentary on the book of Job. Christ’s dead body is displayed on a broken throne, also inscribed in pseudo-Hebrew. A bird—symbol of the soul—flies upwards. The landscape, barren on the left and pastoral on the right, alludes to the contrasting themes of life and death, as do the animals that inhabit it. The turbaned figures in the background would have been familiar to Venetians through their trade with the Middle East and Egypt.

  • Catalogue Entry

    The first record of this picture, one of the artist’s most accomplished and original works as well as a keystone in the history of devotional painting in fifteenth-century Venice, is in 1632, when it is listed in the collection of Roberto Canonici in Ferrara. At the time it bore a spurious signature identifying it as the work of Andrea Mantegna; the signature was removed in 1945 (see Pease 1945). Another picture by Carpaccio, showing the Entombment of Christ—but on canvas, and measuring 145 x 185 cm—was also owned by Canonici (now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Whether the two pictures were painted for the same foundation, such as a confraternity, has been much discussed (Hartt 1992 and Blass-Simmen 1993); certainly their themes are related. Moreover, both have in common that they have been conceived not as narratives, depicting a specific event from the life of Christ, but rather as meditations—an inducement to reflection on the part of the viewer or worshipper. The Berlin painting is a meditation on the burial of Christ, the MMA painting on his death and Resurrection.

    In 1940 Frederick Hartt wrote an article that remains the basis of all interpretations of the picture. He identified the two figures flanking Christ as the great early Christian theologian Jerome (ca. 347–420) and the Old Testament prophet Job, who in Venice had the unusual status of a saint to which a major Franciscan church was dedicated (San Giobbe). Jerome is easily identified by his emblematic companion, the lion, in the background. A rosary of vertebrae hangs from a marble pedestal on which two books rest (one is open); these are objects of devotional prayer and meditation, and the saint’s gaze, directed towards the viewer, makes him the key to the theme of the picture. Job can be identified by his similarity to the figure in Giovanni Bellini’s altarpiece painted for the church of San Giobbe (now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Hartt went on to associate the subject of the picture with a passage from the book of Job (19:25-26)—" I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth"—and with Saint Jerome’s commentary on that book that occurs in a letter written to his follower Paulinus (Letter LIII). Hartt read the letters on the fractured marble base upon which Job sits as "Israel," "that my redeemer liveth," and "19," referring to the passage from Job. He also believed that the letters on the fragmented backrest of the marble throne could be read: "Israel" and "crown." "Crown" would refer to the crown of thorns that rests against the base of the throne, while "Israel" would refer to Christ sitting on the throne of Israel. However, a detailed re-examination of the inscriptions by leading authorities at the behest of the Museum in 2013 confirms that the letters are, in fact, mostly pseudo-Hebrew. Only the word "Israel," found on both the throne and the base on which Job sits, can be identified with certainty. Hebrew scholars have noted that the word "Israel" does not appear in the book of Job. Thus the texts on which Hartt based his interpretation are not confirmed by the lettering.

    Yet, despite the absence of the inscribed texts, Hartt was surely correct in his understanding of the painting. Jerome commented on Job 19:25 in a letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola: "Then, as for Job, that pattern of patience, what mysteries are there not contained in his discourses? Commencing in prose the book soon glides into verse and at the end once more reverts to prose. By the way in which it lays down propositions, assumes postulates, adduces proofs, and draws inferences, it illustrates all the laws of logic. Single words occurring in the book are full of meaning. To say nothing of other topics, it prophesies the resurrection of men’s bodies at once with more clearness and with more caution than any one has yet shewn. 'I know,' Job says, 'that my redeemer liveth, and that at the last day I shall rise again from the earth; and I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh shall I see God. Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. This my hope is stored up in my own bosom.'" (see Philip Schaff, ed., The Principal Works of St. Jerome, 1892, letter LIII, p. 99)

    As Hartt observed, the themes of death and resurrection are also developed in the landscape, which contrasts a barren hill above the cave (or tomb) opening on the left with the lush landscape and city view on the right. He also noted a contrast between the dead tree and the thriving plants, among which is perched a goldfinch, symbolic, like the upward-flying bird, of the Resurrection. On the left a leopard has captured a doe and is watched by a wolf while a doe or fawn grazes below. On the right a stag escapes a leopard. As noted by Gentili (1991), the leopard has the spots of a sinner, while the significance of the stag derives from Psalm 42:1–2: "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?" Two rabbits and a weasel as well as a red parrot are seen in the grass. The figures promenading in the landscape wear turbans and are evidently intended to refer to infidels.

    The uniqueness of the picture has made it difficult to date with precision. It has been placed as early as the 1480s (Lauts 1962) and as late as about 1508 (Zeri and Gardner 1973). There can be little doubt that Carpaccio took his inspiration from Giovanni Bellini’s great painting of Saint Francis in the Wilderness, now in the Frick Collection, New York, which most scholars date ca. 1480. That being so, it seems reasonable to date Carpaccio’s masterpiece to ca. 1485–90.


  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: Signed (lower right, on cartellino): vjctorjs carpattjj / venettj opus [legible only with infrared]; inscribed extensively with phrases in distorted Hebrew letters; those that can be read are: (on throne) "with a cry", "Israel", "crown"; (right, on stone block) "Israel", "that my redeemer liveth", "19" (phrase and number from Job 19:25)

  • Provenance

    Roberto Canonici, Ferrara (in 1632); the Canonici family, Ferrara (until about 1850); Sir William Neville Abdy, 2nd Baronet, London and The Elms, Newdigate, Dorking (by 1881–d. 1910; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 5, 1911, no. 92, as "A Pietà," by Carpaccio, for £12,950 to Sulley); [Sulley and Co., London, 1911; sold to MMA]

  • Exhibition History

    London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1881, no. 188 (as "A Pietà," by Mantegna, lent by Sir William N. Abdy).

    Paris. Musée du Louvre. "Tableaux, statues et objets d'art au profit de l'œuvre des orphelins d'Alsace-Lorraine," 1885, no. 322 (as "Pietà," by Mantegna, lent by Sir William Abdy).

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 86.

    Art Institute of Chicago. "Masterpieces of Religious Art," July 15–August 31, 1954, unnumbered cat. (p. 25).

    New York. Wildenstein & Co., Inc.. "Masterpieces: A Memorial Exhibition for Adele R. Levy," April 6–May 7, 1961, no. 4.

    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 18).

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 197.

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Nudes in Landscapes: Four Centuries of a Tradition," May 18–August 5, 1973, no catalogue.

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art in Renaissance Venice, 1400–1515: Paintings and Drawings from the Museum's Collections," November 8, 2011–February 5, 2012, no catalogue.

  • References

    Inventory of the Collection of Roberto Canonici. 1632 [published in Giuseppe Campori, "Raccolta di cataloghi ed inventarii inediti," Modena, 1870, p. 117], lists this painting as a work by Mantegna.

    Jean Paul Richter. Letter. January 7, 1881 [published in "Italienische Malerei der Renaissance im Briefwechsel von Giovanni Morelli und Jean Paul Richter," Baden-Baden, 1960, p. 142], calls it a very early work by Cima.

    Paul Kristeller. Andrea Mantegna. London, 1901, p. 455, lists it among works attributed to Mantegna and calls the figure at the right Isaiah.

    B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "The Meditation on the Passion by Carpaccio." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 6 (October 1911), pp. 191–92, ill. on cover, attributes it to Carpaccio; suggests that the saint on the right might be Anthony, Paul the Hermit, or Onofrio.

    Claude Phillips. "An Unrecognized Carpaccio." Burlington Magazine 19 (April–September 1911), pp. 144–52, ill., attributes it to Carpaccio and calls it "Meditation on the Passion"; questions the suggestion that the figure at the right is Isaiah; notes similarities to the Burial of Christ in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; suggests the influence of Giovanni Bellini.

    J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in North Italy: Venice, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Ferrara, Milan, Friuli, Brescia, from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century. 2nd ed. [1st ed. 1871]. London, 1912, vol. 1, p. 213 n., Borenius relates it to the Berlin Entombment of Christ and questions the identification of the saint on the right as Isaiah.

    Adolfo Venturi. "La pittura del Quattrocento." Storia dell'arte italiana. 7, part 4, Milan, 1915, p. 758 n. 1.

    Bernard Berenson. Venetian Painting in America: The Fifteenth Century. New York, 1916, pp. 157–59, fig. 63, notes the similarity of the figure of Christ to that in the Pietà in the Serristori collection in Florence, and suggests that the figure at the right may be Saint Onofrio.

    Gino Fogolari. "La pittura veneziana in America." Rassegna d'arte antica e moderna 7 (May 1920), pp. 125–26, ill.

    Frank Jewett Mather Jr. A History of Italian Painting. New York, 1923, pp. 368–70, fig. 248, tentatively attributes it to Carpaccio, suggesting that Giovanni Bellini may be responsible for the design and dating it about 1480; identifies the two saints as Job and Onofrio.

    Wilhelm Hausenstein. Das Werk des Vittore Carpaccio. Stuttgart, 1925, pp. 138–39, pl. 65, tentatively dates it about 1505–10.

    Giuseppe Fiocco. Carpaccio. Paris, 1931, pp. 74–75, pl. XCV.

    Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pl. CCCIII, dates it about 1510.

    Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 134.

    Roberto Longhi. "Per un catalogo del Carpaccio." Vita artistica 3 (January–February 1932), pp. 8, 10 [reprinted in Opere complete di Roberto Longhi, vol. 4, "'Me pinxit' e quesiti caravaggeschi, 1928–1934," Florence, 1968, p. 78], dates it about 1500.

    Lionello Venturi. "Fifteenth Century Renaissance." Italian Paintings in America. 2, New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 408.

    Hans Tietze. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935, p. 328, pl. 74 [English ed., "Masterpieces of European Painting in America," New York, 1939, p. 312, pl. 74], dates it about 1510.

    Raimond van Marle. "The Renaissance Painters of Venice." The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 18, The Hague, 1936, pp. 259, 262–65, 338, 359, fig. 158, notes the influence of Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, and mentions a drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin similar to the figure of Saint Jerome.

    Frederick Hartt. "Carpaccio's Meditation on the Passion." Art Bulletin 22 (March 1940), pp. 25–35, fig. 1, identifies the figure on the right as Job, connects him with Saint Jerome's commentary, and fully discusses the iconography.

    Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 186–88, ill.

    Hans Tietze and E. Tietze-Conrat. The Drawings of the Venetian Painters in the 15th and 16th Centuries. New York, 1944, pp. 83, 149, doubt Carpaccio's authorship, question the connection with the Berlin drawing which they attribute instead to Giovanni Bellini or his shop, and note the relation between the MMA painting and the verso of a drawing in the Fenwick collection, Cheltenham.

    Murray Pease. "New Light on an Old Signature." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4 (Summer 1945), pp. 1–4, ill. (overall and details of signature), and ill. on cover (detail, color), discusses the removal of the false signature of Mantegna and the discovery of the genuine one of Carpaccio.

    Herbert Friedmann. The Symbolic Goldfinch: Its History and Significance in European Devotional Art. Washington, 1946, pp. 83–84, 156, observes that many of the birds and animals may have no iconographical significance; notes that the goldfinch on the back of the throne typically appears with the Infant Christ.

    A[rthur]. E[wart]. Popham. "Disegni veneziani acquistati recentemente dal British Museum." Arte veneta 1 (January–March 1947), p. 229, suggests that a drawing of a seated male nude in the British Museum might be a preparatory study for this painting.

    A[rthur]. E[wart]. Popham and Philip Pouncey. Italian Drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. London, 1950, p. 20.

    Lillian Ross. "Profiles: How do you like it now, gentlemen?" New Yorker (May 13, 1950), p. 60 [reprinted as "Portrait of Hemingway," New York, 1961, p. 61], records Ernest Hemingway's comments on this painting during a visit to the Museum.

    Edoardo Arslan. "I polittici della carità." Bollettino d'arte 36 (October–December 1951), p. 312, fig. 16 (detail).

    Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 225, no. 86, colorpl. 86.

    Luigi Coletti. Pittura veneta del Quattrocento. Novara, 1953, p. LXX, pl. 154, compares it with the Berlin Entombment and calls it "stranamente signorelliana".

    Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), p. 2, ill. p. 16.

    Terisio Pignatti. Carpaccio. Milan, 1955, p. 72, figs. 57, 58 (overall and detail), dates it towards the end of the fifteenth century and notes echoes of Giovanni Bellini's various versions of the Pietà in Stockholm, Toledo, and the Uffizi, Florence.

    Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School. London, 1957, vol. 1, p. 58, pl. 426.

    Giuseppe Fiocco. Carpaccio. Novara, 1958, p. 33, pls. 49a (after restoration), 49b (before restoration), erroneously as in the National Gallery, New York; observes the influence of Mantegna in this work and in the Berlin Entombment and the Sacra Conversazione (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen), dating all three paintings to about the time of the cycle of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice (1502–7).

    Terisio Pignatti. Carpaccio: Biographical and Critical Study. [Lausanne], 1958, pp. 17, 52–54, ill. (color), observes the influence of Cossa and Roberti.

    Guido Perocco. Tutta la pittura del Carpaccio. Milan, 1960, pp. 23–24, 64, pls. 122–23 (overall and detail), observes Flemish influence in the landscape, notes the Ferrarese connection, and suggests that Saint Jerome might be a portrait.

    Fritz Heinemann. Giovanni Bellini e i Belliniani. Venice, [1962], vol. 1, p. 232, no. V.100; vol. 2, fig. 845 (detail).

    Jan Lauts. Carpaccio: Paintings and Drawings. London, 1962, pp. 13–14, 246, no. 63, ill. p. 12 (detail) and pls. 3–5 (overall and details), dates it about 1485 on the basis of the close relationship with Giovanni Bellini's paintings of the early 1480s, the Mantegnesque character of the landscape, and the form of the signature, which differs from signatures on works dated 1490 or later.

    Pietro Zampetti. Vittore Carpaccio. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale. Venice, 1963, p. 233, ill. p. XLIV.

    Giovanni Previtali. La fortuna dei primitivi dal Vasari ai neoclassici. Turin, 1964, p. 157 n. 4 (from p. 156), pl. XII(7) (detail), reproduces it with other works that once carried false Mantegna signatures.

    Michelangelo Muraro. Carpaccio. Florence, 1966, pp. 24, 75, CLX–CLXV, ill. (overall and details), compares the figure of Christ with works by Bellini in Berlin, London, and Rimini, but dates the painting about the time of Carpaccio's "Saint Thomas Aquinas Enthroned" of 1507 (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart) and his "Death of the Virgin" of about 1508 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Ferrara).

    Pietro Zampetti. Vittore Carpaccio. Venice, 1966, pp. 40, 43, 64, no. 18, fig. 18, accepts Lauts's date [see Ref. 1962] of 1485 or slightly later.

    Guido Perocco in L'opera completa del Carpaccio. Milan, 1967, pp. 105–6, no. 48, ill. (black and white, and colorpl. IL).

    Giles Robertson. Giovanni Bellini. Oxford, 1968, p. 101, suggests that this painting, Giovanni Bellini's "Meditation on the Incarnation" (Uffizi, Florence, no. 631), and possibly also Bellini's San Giobbe altarpiece (Accademia, Venice, inv. no. 38) might have been executed for the same patron with a particular veneration for Job, who appears in all three pictures.

    Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 169 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].

    Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 47, 264, 359, 407, 606.

    Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, pp. 14–16, pl. 14, note that the the inscription provides the interpretation of the scene, since through Saint Jerome's commentary on the book of Job, the sufferings of Job came to be seen as a prefiguration of the Passion of Christ [see Ref. Hartt 1940]; observe the influence of the late fifteenth-century Ferrarese school, especially Tura and Roberti, suggesting that Carpaccio painted this work at the same time as his "Death of the Virgin" of about 1508 in Ferrara and that they were both made in Ferrara.

    Bernard Berenson. Looking at Pictures with Bernard Berenson. New York, 1974, pp. 238–39, ill.

    Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 246, fig. 434.

    Rona Goffen. Giovanni Bellini. New Haven, 1989, pp. 117–18, fig. 81, compares it with Bellini's "Sacred Allegory" (Uffizi, Florence), suggesting that Bellini's painting should also be considered a meditation on the Passion [see also Ref. Robertson 1968].

    Gioia Mori. "L''iter salvationis' cristiano nel 'Seppellimento di Cristo' di Vittore Carpaccio." Storia dell'arte no. 69 (May–August 1990), pp. 164, 195 n. 5.

    Augusto Gentili. "Giovanni Bellini, la bottega, i quadri di devozione." Venezia Cinquecento 1, no. 2 (1991), pp. 53, 56, fig. 25, sees the deer as symbolizing the gentleness of Christ and Christians and the leopards as spotted with the vices of the sinner and the cunning and savagery of the infidel and the heretic.

    Peter Humfrey. Carpaccio: Catalogo completo dei dipintii. Florence, 1991, pp. 98–100, no. 25, ill. (color), dates it 1505–7; calls the head of Saint Jerome a variant of that in the "Madonna and Child with Saints Jerome and Catherine" (formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin; destroyed 1945) and relates the figure of Christ to that in the "Dead Christ" (Magnani Rocca collection, Corte di Mamiano).

    Frederick Hartt. "Imago biblica: Cinquant'anni tra Filippo Lippi e Carpaccio." L'arte e la bibbia: Immagine come esegesi biblica. Settimello (Florence), 1992, pp. 171–75, fig. 45, discusses the iconography; suggests that the painting may have been made as the altarpiece for a chapel on the left in the church of San Giobbe, Venice, perhaps the one that is today dedicated to Saint Diego (canonized in 1588).

    Brigit Blass-Simmen. "'Povero Giopo': Carpaccios 'Grabbereitung Christi' und die 'Scuola di San Giobbe' in Venedig." Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, n.s., 35 (1993), pp. 116–18, 120, 125, 128, figs. 4, 5 (reconstruction), argues that it originally formed part of an ensemble with the Berlin Entombment and suggests a connection with the decoration of the Scuola di San Giobbe in Venice in 1504.

    Vittorio Sgarbi. Carpaccio. New York, [1994], pp. 158–61, 222, no. 36, ill. (overall in black and white and color, detail in color), dates it about 1508–15; rejects Hartt's [see Ref. 1992] suggestion that it may originally have been located in the chapel of Saint Diego in the church of San Giobbe; believes that it and the Berlin Entombment were probably made for a private patron in the area of Venice, rather than in Ferrara [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1973].

    Peter Humfrey in The Dictionary of Art. 5, New York, 1996, p. 821.

    Claudia Cieri Via. "Disegno architettonico, decorazione e narrazione nella pittura urbinate del Quattrocento." Bartolomeo Corradini (Fra' Carnevale) nella cultura urbinate del XV secolo. Urbino, 2004, p. 133.

    Augusto Gentili. "Bellini and Landscape." The Cambridge Companion to Giovanni Bellini. Cambridge, 2004, p. 309 n. 18.

    Giovanni Agosti. "La storia dell'arte libera la testa." Su Mantegna. 1, 2nd ed. Milan, 2006, p. 82, pls. 2–3 (detail), reproduces pl. XII from Ref. Previtali 1964.

    Brigit Blass-Simmen. "'Studi dal vivo e dal non più vivo': Carpaccio's Passion Paintings with Saint Job." Metropolitan Museum Journal 41 (2006), pp. 75–90, colorpl. 4, figs. 1, 2 (reconstruction), 6, 9, 20, 24, 35 (details), dates it about 1480–1505; discusses the use of model-drawings, as well as borrowings from other artists, for motifs in this painting; notes that the same cartoon was used for the body of Job in the MMA and Berlin paintings, that the jawbone recurs in the Berlin picture and in Carpaccio's "Saint George and the Dragon" (Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice), and that the skull reappears in the Venice work.

    Timothy Verdon in "Rinascimento." L'arte cristiana in italia. 2, Cinisello Balsamo (Milan), 2006, pp. 206–7, fig. 214 (color), dates it about 1490; notes that Christ seems more asleep than dead; sees the bird above Him as a symbol of the soul.

    Guillaume Cassegrain in Titien, Tintoret, Véronèse . . . Rivalités à Venise. Exh. cat., Musée du Louvre. Paris, 2009, p. 399.

    Elfriede R. Knauer. "A Venetian Vignette One Hundred Years after Marco Polo." Metropolitan Museum Journal 44 (2009), pp. 53–55, 57 nn. 30, 34, fig. 11 (color).

  • See also
    In the Museum