BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)

The Entombment

c. 1450
Distemper on flax canvas, 90 x 74 cm
National Gallery, London

One of the leading Netherlandish artists of his time, Bouts lived in Leuven, where he furnished paintings for the town hall, and executed both private devotional pictures and altarpieces.

The Entombment is remarkably well preserved considering its fragile technique. The picture was probably part of a series of scenes from the life of Christ forming a large shuttered altarpiece, and may have been painted on a lightweight cloth support, rolled like a carpet for export to Italy, where it was recorded in the nineteenth century. Like many such works, it has painted borders, which would have served as a guide to re-stretching the picture once it reached its destination.

The paint layers, composed of pigment mixed in a water-soluble glue medium, were applied directly onto the fabric, so that they sank into it. The retention of moisture by the canvas enabled the painter to blend the brushwork to achieve smooth transitions, an effect which Bouts has used with greatest subtlety in the landscape. Details, however, had to be added with a light touch so as not to redissolve the first paint layers, and the modelling of the faces, for example, is reinforced with rapid hatching. Although the colours would never have had the brilliance of oils, some pigments have discoloured: parts of the sky which were protected by an earlier frame can be seen to be more blue than those below, which have accumulated surface grime.

The burial of Christ after the crucifixion is described in the Gospels and retold in more pathetic detail in the devotional literature of the time. For greater immediacy, the figures are dressed in contemporary clothes. Bouts carefully differentiates the grief of each one. The three Maries are shown from the front, from the left and from the right, their eyes all downcast. One wipes her tears, another covers her mouth, the third holds Christ's arm to place it gently in the tomb. She is supported by John who casts a lingering last look at his Master. Joseph of Arimathea holds Christ's shoulders, reverently touching the body only through the linen cloth, like a priest at Mass holding up the host. Nicodemus, a secret follower of Jesus, lowers the feet into the tomb, while the repentant sinner, Mary Magdalene, looks up into the face of Christ - the only one of the women to lift her eyes. Christ's body is carefully turned so that we may see the wound in his side and the blood, which also refers to the Eucharist. The artist's intentions are clear. He sought to arouse, in a viewer kneeling at the altar preparing to receive the body of the Saviour, those same feelings of grief and wonder which we can still see in the painted figures.