The Entombment and The Man of Sorrows

The Iconography

In the Middle Ages in the West there were two ways to picture the entombment of Jesus. In the first the sorrowing disciples stretch out his pale body for burial while the Virgin Mary kisses his face, as above. A sorrowful Mary Magdalene may also be represented (example). This basic approach, a narrative painting inviting pathos, continues into the later work of Donatello in the 15th century and Carracci and Caravaggio in the 16th/17th. (In these later works the kiss has disappeared.)

The other way of picturing the entombment is the "Man of Sorrows" iconographic type, which is not so much a narrative as an occasion for devotional contemplation of Christ as the "suffering servant" of Isaiah 53:3-5 —
Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.
The imagery of the Man of Sorrows began in 12th-century icons in the East, where it is thought to have been modeled on the Holy Shroud, which was on display in Constantinople until the sack of 1204.1 By the 14th century it had gained great popularity in the West. This detail from a portable altar exemplifies the iconography: Mary and John hold up the upper half of Jesus' body so the viewer can contemplate the bloody gash in his breast and the nail wounds in his hands, which are crossed upon the open sepulcher.

The 15th century sees a number of variations on this type, many of them with the hands extended as in the first picture at right. In some, Mary and John are left out and one contemplates only the body (example). Or they are left in but the tomb is removed (example) or reimagined as an altar (example) or a window (example), or even a chalice (example). But in all these variants the one constant is the body of Christ, always in the center, always wounded, and usually wearing the crown of thorns.

In Latin countries church visitors will sometimes find life-size Christ sculptures in glass-sided coffins (example). These are taken out and used in processions during Holy Week. Fernandez adapts this genre in his Dead Christ.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-14.



Diptych of the Anastasis and the Resurrection of Lazarus, 13th-14th century. See the description page.


Detail from a Vivarini polyptych of 1449 – See the description page

Croatian fresco, mid-16th century – See the description page

Relief at entry to St. Andrew's Church, Venice – See the description page



1 Tradigo, 232.