HEEMSKERCK, Maerten van
(b. 1498, Heemskerck, d. 1574, Haarlem)

Triptych of the Entombment

Oil on oak, 220 x 149 cm (centre), 219 x 66 cm (wings)
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Maerten van Heemskerck probably produced this imposing triptych for a church in Delft. It is a mature work, and one of the artist's most accomplished paintings. The central panel represents the entombment according to a traditional pattern, with Christ's gnarled body, placed on a brilliant white winding cloth, taking up alone almost the entire foreground. It is supported by Joseph of Arimathea to the right and by Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene to the left. The Saviour's face is ghastly pale and carries the marks of the crown of thorns, that now lies at the foot of the tomb. However, the promise of his forthcoming resurrection figures on the bas-relief of the sarcophagus, which illustrates the story of Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale are considered as prefiguring Christ's three days in the tomb. Around the central group we find the usual protagonists, St John and the Virgin, Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas, to the far right, a servant carries a vase of perfume for embalming Christ's body. Their gestures are tense, their faces distorted with grief.

A similar sense of sadness marks their holy patrons Peter and Mary Magdalene who accompany the donors in prayer on the wings. The reverse sides of the wings are decorated with the majestic figures of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.

The triptych illustrates profusely how much Van Heemskerck was marked by his stay in Italy, where he lived in Rome from 1532 to 1536-37 and was constantly drawing antique monuments, ruins and sculptures. Joseph of Arimathea's face picks up the expression of the famous Laocoon, of whom the artist has left us a sketch, whilst the sarcophagus is inspired directly from Roman models. Christ's monumental figure, with its powerful muscles, also betrays clear influences of Michelangelo and the Italian mannerists.

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem conserves a triptych by Van Heemskerck, the central panel of which shows the Mocking of Christ, another episode of the Passion, probably intended for the same chapel as the Brussels altarpiece. Indeed the work carries the same dates and is of identical shape and size. In addition, the backs of the wings depict the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, who, together with Isaiah and Jeremiah, prefigure the four evangelists.