Easter Sunday is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most joyous and triumphant event in the Christian year. According to Christian faith, that ascension to eternal life had a terrible cost: Jesus had to die a human death by crucifixion: a slow, painful, and humiliating method reserved for slaves and criminals. The early Church did not dwell on it because of its indignity. But Jesus’ humanity became a central part of the Passion story, so the crucifixion became a meaningful subject for art during the Middle Ages.
“Lamentation,” a painting from the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, depicts the time after Jesus was taken from the cross and before his interment in the tomb. That moment, too, became a common subject.
Traditionally, depictions of the Lamentation show Jesus being mourned by his mother, Mary. Mary Magdalene was usually included, placed at his feet, along with the Apostle John, who was entrusted by Jesus with the care of his mother; Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his own tomb for Jesus, and Nicodemus, who helped anoint Jesus’ body. Other individuals, such as Roman soldiers and the two criminals crucified with Jesus, could also be part of the composition.
In this work, there is another woman, probably “the third Mary” as she is often called, who was also a follower of Jesus.
The painter and the painting
For several centuries, Lamentation was attributed to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69), the great Dutch painter. Lauren Vonbechmann, a curatorial fellow at the Ringling, says its attribution “became highly debated” beginning in the 1960s, with the almost universal agreement that it wasn’t the work of the master.
“A painting by Rembrandt of the Lamentation in the National Gallery of London doesn’t look anything like this,” she said. “This one mirrors a lot of what he was doing, but with nothing like his execution.”
The Ringling Museum now attributes the piece to a student of Rembrandt. Vonbechmann said it could have been worked on by more than one student, as it was probably an assignment of sorts to practice composition and realistic figuration. Rembrandt himself may even have done some of the painting, she said.
“It’s important as far as looking at how Rembrandt worked, how he used models,” Vonbechmann said. “You can see some things that aren’t working. It’s a teaching piece.”
Chiaroscuro, or the play of light against dark for drama, was a tool of Rembrandt’s, but the effect here is heavy-handed. The third woman, who leans against the cross, doesn’t seem connected to the others in the painting. The realistic treatment of Jesus, emaciated and pallid, is also a trademark of Rembrandt, but the gray tone of his skin would be unusual for the artist.
The painter’s signature appears on the canvas, but it has been deemed false, “perhaps someone trying to sell it as a Rembrandt after his death,” Vonbechmann said. “We don’t know.”
Rembrandt is considered one of the giants of Western art. He reached his maturity during the Dutch Golden Age, when the republic (now the Netherlands) enjoyed great prosperity. He excelled at portraits of contemporaries and biblical scenes, though they weren’t as popular, becoming wealthy and famous.
His happy marriage was marred by the deaths in infancy of his first three children. Only a fourth, Titus, survived to adulthood. His wife died shortly after Titus was born.
Rembrandt made a lot of money throughout his lifetime, but was profligate with it, going through bankruptcy and being forced to sell much of his artwork. Though he continued to receive commissions in the last years of his life, when he died, he was buried in a pauper’s grave.
The Netherlands in the 17th century
This period was known as the Dutch Golden Age in which science, philosophy, art, and commerce flourished after the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 that gave the Netherlands a virtual monopoly on lucrative trade with Asia.
The rise of a wealthy merchant class changed priorities for spendable income, especially in art. The Protestant majority was uninterested in the religious themes popular in Catholic countries in southern Europe, nor was there a market for the traditionally esteemed history paintings.
It was here that the still life genre scene (little slices of everyday life) and landscape first became important categories in painting, along with portraits and paintings of civic groups. The most important painters of the time were Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jacob van Ruisdael.
The provenance of a work of art is its trail of ownership. Lamentation had a string of aristocratic British and French owners beginning in the 19th century before John Ringling acquired it in 1929 at a London auction. (No records of ownership exist before that.) Ringling’s wife, Mable, died that year, and it seems he threw himself into collecting as a diversion from his grief, buying about 80 paintings. He wrote his friend and mentor Julius “Lulu” Bohler, an art dealer who had galleries in Munich and Lucerne, that he was “very pleased” with the painting.
The Christie’s catalog listed the painting as a Rembrandt, and Ringling purchased it believing in that attribution. Vonbechmann said he might have paid as little as $7,000 for it.
Ringling acquired thousands of works of art, including more than 600 paintings by Old Masters. They all ended up in the museum he built next to Ca d’Zan, his palatial home on Sarasota Bay. Ringling died in 1936, almost broke, but he held on to his dream to give the museum to the state of Florida.
Lennie Bennett is art critic for the Tampa Bay Times. Story via the New York Times News Service.