Pontormo and the Capponi chapel IV

5. Content and Meaning of Pontormo’s Work in the Chapel

The Capponi chapel in the Santa Felicita

Capponi chapel in the Santa Felicita
photo: Steven Zucker

The question of the precise meaning has occupied many art historians. As previously described, the major problem is that the frescoes in the dome have disappeared. Vasari described the frescoes in the dome as follows: “he painted a God the Father, surrounded by four very beautiful patriarchs […].” The only thing we have is this brief description and some drawings by Pontormo for the dome.

Pontormo 'Deposition' detail: Christ
photos: Steven Zucker; Christ: Maria Cristina Francois

Christ zoom out

The altarpiece called the Deposition is also problematic. No cross, no tomb, but then what? Something between a Deposition and an Entombment? Is Christ just taken from his mother’s lap, or is he being placed there, thus constituting a “Pietà in the making”? And then the most important question remains: what do the frescoes, the window, and the altarpiece have to do with each other? Various answers and suggestions have been given to all these questions. There are already seven different interpretations of the altarpiece, ranging from a Pietà or a vision to devotion without a story.

The most recent interpretation, and probably not the last, comes from 2009 and is by Wasserman. He assumes that the altarpiece is indeed a narrative composition, but that there are also elements intended to evoke devotion in the viewer. As an example of devotion, he mentions the woman holding Jesus head with her hands.

A focal point in the composition is the sudarium (sweat cloth) held by the figure at the back, precisely in “the empty center,” meaning the place around which the figures are grouped. The prominent position of the sweat cloth in the composition can be explained by a passage from the “Meditations on the Life of Christ” by the fourteenth-century Pseudo-Bonaventura. In it, this Franciscan monk writes:

The Sudarium zoom out

“John and Nicodemus […] began with a shroud for the body [of Christ] to prepare it with linen cloths according to Jewish custom. The Woman held His head on her lap the entire time, because this preparation [for the burial] was meant for her. Then she wiped His face and kissed His mouth and eyes, and wrapped His head in a cloth, and diligently prepared Him.” Cited from: Wassermann J., ‘Jacopo Pontormo paintings in the Capponi Chapel Santa Felicita’, Florence, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institut in Florenz, 2009 Vol. 53 49 and footnote 82 (downloadable PDF here)

Pontormo 'Deposition' detail:  Sudarium
photos: Steven Zucker

The sudarium in the altarpiece thus refers to the moment when Christ comes to lie in his mother’s lap and his burial. Pontormo makes it clear that we are just before the moment of a Pietà. It is not Pontormo, but Fra Bartolommeo who first conceived the moment just before the Pietà in a composition.

According to Wasserman, there is talk of Volto Santi di Cristo, or the theology of the holy face of God the Father. Vasari spoke of four very beautiful patriarchs and God the Father in the dome. Janet Cox-Rearick identified God the Father in three drawings. This, however, is incorrect; it is not God the Father, but Moses, according to Wasserman. The cloth or veil in his hand indicates that we are dealing with Moses here. In John 14:9 it says: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Paul reproaches the Jews for being blind to God. Only when they remove the veil, that is, accept God, will they know the truth. This is the theology of the Volto Santo di Cristo. In Exodus 33:18-20, a prefiguration of the Volto Santo di Cristo on Mount Sinai is described as follows: “Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

The desire to see God’s face is linked to an influential theological concept. As stated in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”

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

This line of thought was adopted by early Christian theologians such as Tertullian. It was especially the Greek, Origen, who elaborated on “the theology of the face” in the third century and described it as follows: “Our Savior is the image of the visible God […] he is the image by which we know God the Father.” In the time when Pontormo lived, these ideas were very popular. The monk Savonarola (Fra Bartolomeo), who led a theocratic dictatorship in Florence in 1494, expressed himself in a sermon on Exodus in similar terms as Origen (more about Savonarola on Wikipedia). Also, Botticelli, as previously mentioned, painted a Pietà. Here, the head of Jesus is already on Mary’s lap on the shroud. The face of Christ is held and shown to the viewer.

Botticelli ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’
Pontormo 'Preliminary Study of the Deposition Composition detail

Pontormo ‘Preliminary Study of the Composition’

The cloud, which replaces the ladder in Pontormo’s preliminary study, is more than just an earthly element. The lighting is consistently applied by Pontormo in his altarpiece: the light comes from the right, just as the natural light falls in the chapel. However, this is not the case with the cloud: here the light comes from the upper left. Thus, the top of the cloud is illuminated while the underside falls into shadow. With this unnatural light, a light coming from above, the cloud becomes a symbol of an invisible God. This is how Matthew describes the invisible God at the Transfiguration. In a Crucifixion by Botticelli, the Lord appears, but without a cloud. God the Father is thus present at the crucifixion of his son; this is where the story begins in Pontormo’s altarpiece. It continues with the woman bending forward, holding Christ’s head. Then the young men carry the dead Christ to his mother. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a young woman runs in with the sudarium in her hand. The other woman with the profile perdu holds Christ’s hand to bring him to Mary. While the background at the top is largely shrouded in darkness, the light falls mainly on the foreground.

Pontormo ‘Deposition’ zoom out

Pontormo 'Deposition'  Cappella Capponi
photo zoom: Steven Zucker

In John 12:45-48 it says:
“And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.”
And Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:6

What Paul writes here is the power of light and the theology of the Volto Santo di Christo. This is precisely what Pontormo has translated into paint.

Pontormo 'Deposition' detail
photo: Steven Zucker

Woman holding the cloth with her right hand

The woman high in the pictorial plane holds a cloth against her body with her right arm. The cloth, of a different color than her garment, is a shroud. In Certosa del Galluzzo (Wikipedia Certosa; Florence), Pontormo had painted this a few years earlier. In this fresco, the man bending over on the right side of the pictorial plane carries the shroud, and the woman next to him holds the sudarium. Pontormo places the sweat cloth in the empty middle of his altarpiece and the shroud on a vertical axis above it. Both cloths are carried by women.

Peter, who heard this, ran to the tomb but saw only the linen cloths lying there.” In John 20:1-20, it also mentions the linen cloths and the cloth that was over Christ’s face. In the Victimae paschali, a rhymed sermon sung at Easter, it says:

“Tell us, Mary, what did you see on your way? I saw the tomb of the living Christ and the glory of the Resurrected; I saw his angels as witnesses, and also the sweat cloth and the grave cloth. Christ, my hope, has risen! He will go before you into Galilee. Now we know that Christ has risen from the dead.” The Victimae paschali is sung on the Solemnity of Easter Listen here Wikipedia

In Capponi’s will, it states that a mass should be read in the chapel five times a week. The money was to be paid from the income of the workshop at the Mercato Vecchio. The faithful in the chapel have enough material for meditation, such as the sudarium, the shroud held by the woman, and the mourning faces, including Pontormo himself. Also notable is the head of Christ. It is held and raised towards Moses in the dome.

Agnolo Bronzino ‘Portrait of a young man with a book’

Moses has just removed his veil and sees what he so longed for on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:18-20) now coming to pass. Thus, Moses also becomes a witness to the salvation of humanity. When the priest raises his host during the Eucharist, you see Christ, who gave his life for humanity, precisely on the vertical axis of the shroud, symbolizing the resurrection. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Paul writes the following: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus.” This, according to Wasserman, is the message Pontormo wanted to convey. Lodovico di Gino Capponi, in his tomb chapel, hoped to be among the dead who would be led to Jesus. In his chapel, God the Father in the dome blessed the event on the altarpiece. The witnesses, including Moses and the evangelists, saw that through the sacrifice the Son of Christ made, humanity was saved (Wassermann, J., ‘Jacopo Pontormo’s paintings in the Capponi Chapel Santa Felicita, Florence, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institut in Florenz, 2009 Vol. 53 59).

The inscription on the tombstone on the floor in front of the altarpiece reads:
Louis of Capponi, still among the living, and not at all forgetting the death to come, has set this up for himself and his descendants.

The altar

Capponi chapel: the altar
photo: Steven Zucker

The restoration of 2017 yielded new discoveries

After a restoration, you always hope that something new will be revealed, such as a hidden head or figure (See Friends of Florence). No head or figure was discovered during the last restoration. However, important findings have come to light.

Pontormo may not have placed his ‘Descent from the Cross’ in a real space. The term ‘neutral space’ is often used for this. No earth or sky is painted. During the restoration, small pebbles emerged in the lower left of the picture plane, showing shadows. It also turned out that the sky was indeed painted. There is even a small cloud painted.

Paints used in restoration

To the surprise of the restorers, the panel was not painted with oil paint, but with tempera. This type of paint was no longer used in the Quattrocento (fifteenth century). You would expect the use of tempera to weaken the colors somewhat. However, this is not the case.

No traces of charcoal powder were found in the central part of the panel (Wikipedia: spolvero). The artist did not use cartoons. However, he outlined the figures, cloaks, and such with slightly darker paint. The colors have lightened over time. The orange-red is atypical for Pontormo. The red used by this artist also contained a certain amount of blue. During cleaning, a large number of tonal colors were revealed, especially a whole range of shades of blue. For instance, in Mary’s veil, five and probably six different shades of blue were used.

During restorations in the eighteenth century, part of the top layer of paint disappeared. As a result, some fine details are no longer visible.

Continuation Florence day 6: Uffizi museum Galleria degli Uffizi I