Artibus et Historiae no. 66 (XXXIII)

2012, ISSN 0391-9064

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FRANCESCA ALBERTI - Daniele da Volterra’s Descent from the Cross: Iconography, Function and Context

For a long time Daniele da Volterra’s Descent from the Cross was thought to be permanently damaged by Pietro Palmaroli’s incautious restoration. Described by Davidson as “a dispossessed ghost, the shadow of a once extraordinary presence”, the fresco has recovered some of its former splendour thanks to a restoration campaign that ended in 2005, which allows us to study the picture from a new perspective, taking into account not only its “revolutionary” stylistic qualities but also its innovative iconography, conceived as a support for the worshipper’s devotion.

In the first part of the article the modernity of the fresco’s composition is considered by closely looking at the preparatory drawings and by enhancing their role in the artist’s creative process. The complex iconography is then carefully examined in order to reveal the fresco’s theological content and its liturgical “performative” function. While the priest was celebrating mass in the small Orsini Chapel,  the painting reminded the viewer about the sacramental dimension of Christ’s death. Moreover, the absence of wounds on Jesus’ body and his presentation as an offering recalled the resurrecting power of his sacrifice. Daniele da Volterra also enhanced the role of the Virgin not only by placing her parallel to the painting’s surface and in a position that echoes that of her son, but also by creating, with the Holy Women, a sort of “mourning” configuration, which presents Mary as a Corredemptrix and Coadjutrix of the human race. This symbolic comprehension of the storia is enriched by another original motif: the conversion of Longinus, which takes place on one of the ladders. In the picture, the ladder becomes an allegory of the scala cœli and the Roman soldier, who is holding Christ, is an exemplum of spiritual ascension.

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