The image of the dead Christ lying in the lap of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, surrounded by mourners, was a well-established subject in Venetian painting by the second half of the 16th century. The chief mourners are usually Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene. Others often depicted include Mary Cleophas and the two followers who took Christ’s body down from the cross and bore it to the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; of the two men, the rich Joseph is typically the elder and better dressed. Thus, the protagonists in the Gallery’s painting might tentatively be identified as Saint John, the Virgin, Mary Magdalene (usually dressed in red, and thus more likely to be the woman in the background), Mary Cleophas (in the foreground), and Joseph of Arimathea. The evidence in the x-radiographs of other figures, including a turbaned head directly above the Virgin, silhouetted against the cross, indicates that the composition was originally somewhat different, and may have included additional mourners.
The Gallery’s picture—specifically the poses of Saint John and Mary Magdalene—dimly reflects Jacopo Tintoretto’s Deposition from around 1562 (originally in the church of the Umiltà, Venice; now Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice), although that painting, with its depiction of the fainting Virgin, has a greater narrative emphasis. The overall style and figure types in the Gallery’s picture are also generically in the vein of Tintoretto, although weak even by the exceedingly loose standards of the artist’s studio in his later years. Perhaps the closest comparison among works that can definitively be linked to the Tintoretto studio is the cycle of paintings on the life of Saint Catherine, originally painted for the church in the convent of Santa Caterina (now in the Palazzo Patriarcale, Venice). A few of the paintings in that cycle show sufficient compositional imagination to be plausibly linked to compositional sketches by Jacopo Tintoretto, while several show the unmistakable figure types of his son Domenico. Other parts of the cycle show awkward compositions and limp and inexpressive figures similar to those in the Lamentation. Indeed, several of the figures in the Lamentation find counterparts in the cycle; for example, all three executioners to the left and the face of the saint herself in The Scourging of Saint Catherine [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Workshop of Jacopo Tintoretto, The Scourging of Saint Catherine, 1580s, oil on canvas, Seminario Patriarcale, Venice. © Cameraphoto Arte, Venezia.
Adolfo Venturi identified the hand of Jacopo Tintoretto in two paintings in the Santa Caterina cycle, attributing the remaining four to Domenico and another hand, whose figures he characterized as having a puppetlike quality. The latter, he hypothesized, could be Tintoretto’s son Marco (circa 1560–1637), whom he assumed to be a member of the studio but less favored and less talented than Domenico. Venturi assembled a small proposed oeuvre for Marco based on similarities to the Santa Caterina paintings; among them is the Gallery’s Lamentation. However, Venturi’s proposal, based on the leap of faith that the weak hand in the Santa Caterina cycle must be Marco’s, is fundamentally lacking in substance and has failed to find favor.
The decorative approach and small scale of the Lamentation suggest the work of a Venetian madonnero, a painter who made and sold images of the Madonna for ordinary households. While the similarities to a documented Tintoretto commission (that is, the Santa Caterina cycle) suggest that the artist may have painted in the Tintoretto studio, the Lamentation is so distant from the works of Jacopo Tintoretto himself that an attribution only to the Circle of Jacopo Tintoretto is warranted. The Gallery adopted this attribution in 2018. The details of Tintoretto’s studio organization remain unknown; however, the profusion of derivative works that include references to studio types and figures from Tintoretto’s paintings, yet are manifestly by different hands, raises the possibility that there may have been semi-independent painters associated with the bottega, subject to little in the way of quality control, producing pictures that did not meet the standard of the “house style.” On the other hand, Tintoretto may have hired assistants to work on an occasional basis on projects such as the Santa Caterina cycle, and these painters may have had their own separate businesses executing works like the Lamentation that aped Tintoretto’s style. Pictures associated with Tintoretto that seem to be related to the Lamentation, with similar figure types but of marginally higher quality, include a Descent from the Cross, Christ among the Doctors, and Miraculous Draught of Fishes, all recently on the art market.
The relationship to the Santa Caterina cycle, which is not documented but datable to the 1580s, provides an approximate dating for the Lamentation.
March 21, 2019