Pontormo and the Capponi chapel II

2. The Stained Glass Window and the Altarpiece

Capponi wanted to “give light to the mentioned chapel” so that the frescoes and the altarpiece that Pontormo still had to paint would be clearly visible. In the sixteenth century, the facade did not yet have a portico, allowing more light to enter than today. The window itself was already completed in 1525. Capponi did not, as usual, commission the painter to design a stained glass window, but the French painter and glassmaker Guillaume de Marcillat.

Guillaume de Marcillat 'Self-portrait' Stained glass window
photos: Sailko and situ Steven Zucker

Guillaume de Marcillat ‘Self-portrait’      Stained glass window
In situ

Why did Pontormo not receive the commission, but Marcillat did? According to Capponi’s bank records, he supplied clear and colored glass to Marcillat. Moreover, the Frenchman was held in high esteem. He had worked for years at the papal court under Julius II and Leo X during the same period that Capponi was a banker and merchant in Rome. Vasari also spoke highly of this painter and glassmaker. These were enough reasons to give the commission to Marcillat.

Entombment of Christ

The dimensions of the window, 136 x 52 cm, were unfortunate, much smaller than in other chapels from the sixteenth century. In September 1526, the stained glass window was completed. The original window was removed around 1738 during a restoration of Santa Felicita and has remained in the Palazzo Capponi alle Rovinate to this day. Since 2002, a replica of the window has been visible again in the chapel. In the glass window, Marcillat depicted two scenes from the Passion in a traditional narrative way: the Descent of the Cross and the Entombment. Due to the limited width, Marcillat was forced to cut off his figures, such as the Good Thief at the top. The three Marys are also depicted, but very limitedly, while the body of Christ had to be strongly foreshortened.

Guillaume de Marcillat 'Entombment' Stained glass window

While Pontormo was working on his frescoes and the altarpiece, which took three years according to Vasari, the stained glass window was already completed one year after the purchase of the chapel.

2. The Altarpiece

Pontormo ‘The Deposition’ oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm, c. 1528
Pontormo ‘Self-portrait’

Pontormo ‘The Deposition’ detail: 'Mary' Capponi chapel
Web Gallery of Art

Pontormo painted hardly any narrative elements in the panel as Marcillat did in the stained glass window. In his preliminary study for the altarpiece, Pontormo drew a ladder. This indicates that Christ has just been taken down from the cross. In the altarpiece, the ladder disappears and is replaced by a cloud. While Marcillat’s composition leaves no doubt about the subject matter, this is not clear with Pontormo. Is it a Desent of the Cross as it is called by the Web Gallery of Art and other art sites, an Entombment, or a Pietà? Having both a Deposition and an Entombment in one chapel, in the window and the altarpiece, is unlikely. Moreover, a Descent of the Cross position without a cross and ladder or an Entombment without a tomb is unusual.

Pontormo ‘Deposition’ detail: Mary Capponi chapel
photos: Steven Zucker

Mary       Zoom out

Pontormo has omitted almost all realistic elements except for the cloud and the rocky path at the bottom of the picture. The subject: 11 people placed close together in a vertical composition, overlapping each other with the dead Christ in the foreground. At the bottom and in the middle of the picture, a man is crouching and carrying Christ. “[…] it may not be the most practical way to move with such a load, but for a composition that needs to depict different layers or rows of figures, it is indeed effective.” (Cited and translated from: Jeroen Stumpel in een artikel waarin Rosso en Pontormo vergeleken worden: Stumpel, J., ‘Rosso en Pontormo’, Kunstschrift, jg. 38 1993, nr. 3 17) There are two groups to distinguish: on the left, a group of four people carrying Christ and behind them on the right, a group of mourners including Mary and on the far right, the painter himself. The figures are placed around a spot in the middle that you could almost call empty. Exactly in the center is the hand with a light blue cloth of a female back figure approaching Mary. The peculiar center forms a point around which the figures revolve as if a carousel is making its rounds. The body of Christ follows this circular motion.

According to the art historian Shearman, the idea of the two distinct groups is based on Raphael’s Entombment. Above this entombment, Raphael had painted a God the Father looking down at his dead son.

God the Father and Entombment       Reconstruction Baglioni

Raphael 'God the Father'

Raphael ‘Entombment’ 1507

Raphael 'Entombment'

Pontormo transformed Raphael’s horizontal composition of the entombment into a vertical one, where the figures overlap significantly. Additionally, the bearing and mourning groups are placed perpendicular to each other. Mary falls backward while Christ is carried forward towards the viewer. This inward and outward axis between Christ and Mary strongly involves the viewer in the event.

Christ and Mary          Preliminary study of Mary

Pontormo ‘Deposition’ detail: Mary  Christ Capponi chapel

Preliminary study Mary: Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence 6666 Fr. Here, as is often the case with Pontormo, several female figures are based on male models.

The two figures with their backs to the viewer, particularly the woman on the right, draw the spectator into the scene unfolding before their eyes. This also applies to the dead Christ depicted close to the viewer in front of the altarpiece.

Botticelli ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ 1495 – 1500
Christ and Mary

Another visual source that Pontormo likely drew from was painted by Botticelli about thirty years earlier. It is a late work by this Florentine painter, titled “The Lamentation over the Dead Christ.” It is clear how Pontormo utilized Botticelli’s composition. The woman on the right in the image holds Christ’s head with both hands towards the viewer. In Pontormo’s work, the woman on the left also holds Christ’s head in her hands.

The way Pontormo has depicted the corpse involves the viewer in the event. Another preliminary study that Pontormo drew of Christ has survived.

Pontormo’s Christ        Michelangelo’s Christ      First sketch for Christ

Pontormo ‘Deposition’ detail: 'Christ' Capponi chapel
photo: Steven Zucker and Sketch Christ: Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence 6619 F

Like many sixteenth-century artists, Pontormo was strongly influenced by Michelangelo. An early work by Michelangelo from 1498-1499, the Pietà, served as the inspiration for the dead Christ in the altarpiece.

Pontormo ‘Deposition’ detail: Facial expression Capponi chapel

Facial expression

Almost all the figures seem to be in motion; their facial expressions, postures, and gestures express feelings of sorrow and compassion. On some faces, the sadness is apparent, while others are more introspective.

Pontormo adheres to the advice that Alberti gave to artists in his ‘On Painting,’ which reads:

Feelings and bodily movements      Zoom out
Preliminary study of the figure in green en red

“A representation will move the souls of the viewers if the persons in the painting outwardly express their feelings as strongly as possible. Nature […] ensures that we lament with the lamenting, laugh with the laughing, and mourn with the mourning. These feelings are recognized by bodily movements. […] Those who are sorrowful have a downcast brow, a drooping neck, and everything falls downward as if it is powerless and neglected.” Cited and translated from: Alberti, ‘Over de schilderkunst,’ Boom, Amsterdam Meppel 1996 (vertaling Lex Hermans Inleiding en annotaties Caroline van Eck en Robert Zwijnenberg; eerste uitgave 1435) blz. 108  
Study: Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence  6576 Fr.  

Pontormo Descent from the Cross detail Cappella Capponi
photos: Steven Zucker

She holds the head of the dead Christ

The posture of the man’s arms in the upper right of the image plane and Mary’s outstretched arm speak volumes. A preliminary study of this man with his outstretched arms has been preserved, matching Alberti’s description with words like ‘hanging neck, everything falls down, and powerless.’ The gesture of the woman leaning towards the dead Christ ‘will touch the souls of the viewers.’ She holds the head of the dead Christ with both hands to prevent it from falling backward or sideways.

The man who embraces and carries the upper body of the dead as he walks forward does not seem to be genuinely burdened by the heavy weight of the dead body. The graceful way he moves, almost like a dance, is reminiscent of what Leonardo da Vinci described in his ‘The Practice of Painting’ as gratia and leggiadria.

The man who carries the upper body of Christ

The man who embraces and carries the upper body of the dead as he walks forward does not seem to be genuinely burdened by the heavy weight of the dead body. The graceful way he moves, almost like a dance, is reminiscent of what Leonardo da Vinci described in his ‘The Practice of Painting’ as gratia and leggiadria.

“The parts of the body should be arranged with grace (gratia), keeping in mind the intended effect. If one wants to exude enchanting elegance (leggiadria), a figure should be refined and tall in stature, without too much musculature and with the few muscles intentionally visible, soft, that is to say, not clearly visible and without deep shadow, and with relaxed limbs, especially the arms, that is, no body part should be directly aligned with another.” Thus said Leonardo da Vinci. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci Compiled and edited from the original Manuscript by Jean Paul Richter Dover publications, Inc. New York 1979 Vol I The practice of painting 295 (number 592) under the heading: Della Gratia Della Membra.

Pontormo Descent from the Cross detail: 'Man carrying Christ'  Cappella Capponi

Very different from the man Caravaggio painted 75 years later in his entombment. Here, no gratia and leggiadria, but the raw reality of carrying a heavy corpse with sweat, muscles, and strained faces visible.

Caravaggio ‘Entombment’     Nicodemus      Legs and feet

Caravaggio 'Entombment'

Can the application of gratia by Pontormo be explained by the style of the time: Mannerism?

The use of color does not seem natural. It almost seems as if the scene takes place not on earth, but in a supernatural world. Vasari described the colors as follows:
“For wanting to do something new in it, he executed it without shadows and with such bright and smooth coloration that one can hardly distinguish the light tones from the half-tones, and the latter from the dark tones.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’,

San Michele Visdomini Pontormo ‘La Pala Pucci’ (right)

San Michele Visdomini  Pontormo ‘La Pala Pucci’

The unusual color scheme Pontormo applied in the altarpiece is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s ‘The Doni Tondo’. In 1518, Pontormo painted the altarpiece, ‘Sacra Conversazione’ or Pala Pucci, for San Michele Visdomini in Florence (click here for more information about this church). It was his first commission for an altarpiece. In this work, Pontormo used sfumato and strong chiaroscuro. Vasari describes this ‘Sacra Conversazione’ as the most beautiful work the painter ever made.

Pontormo ‘La Pala Pucci’

Pontormo 'La Pala Pucci'

However, at the moment the altarpiece was hung in the church, the result looked dismal. Pontormo had not taken into account the scanty light at the spot where it was to be hung.

Not much direct light fell into the Capponi chapel. The bright light colors of the altarpiece in Santa Felicità come out much better than his ‘Sacra Conversazione’. Unfortunately, the original bright colors were damaged by a restoration in 1722.

Pontormo ‘The Deposition’ oil on wood, 313 x 192 cm, c. 1528
Pontormo ‘Self-portrait’       Preliminary study Self-Portrait

Pontormo ‘The Deposition’ Cappella Capponi
Study: Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence 6587 F

The original golden frame of the altarpiece does not match the sober architecture of Brunelleschi. This architect also used white plaster in this chapel and blue-gray pietra serena for the supporting parts. Traces of gold have been found on the architectural framework in the chapel. In this way, during the renovation in 1525, the architecture and the altarpiece were forged into a unity.

Continuation Florence day 6: Pontormo and the Capponi chapel III