DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Lamentation for Christ

1500-03
Oil on panel, 151 x 121 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

This panel was dedicated by Albrecht Glimm, the goldsmith, to his first wife, Margareth Holzhausen, deceased 22 October 1500. The Dürerian monogram and the date 1500 had once been on the lower edge of the sudarium.

The lamentation scene, composed of nine figures under the cross, occupies almost the entire painting. This scene is framed above by a beautiful landscape in which Jerusalem can be seen off the lakeshore, atop a hill, in the foreground. Behind the city is a mountain peak and a mountain range that disappear into the background. The city, mountains, and lake are flooded with light. A thick blanket of heavy black clouds that thins out just above the lake in the back looms over the mountains. While the presence of the black clouds is justified by the narration of the crucifixion ("and darkness came over the whole land...while the sun's light failed," Luke 23:45), and the light is explained by the words of the apocryphal gospel of Saint Peter when he describes the position ("and the sun began to shine again ", 6:21), the Jerusalem that appears in the painting - a city near water, with house, towers, and fortification walls, lying against rocky mountains - is decidedly an invented, Nordic city, which does not at all reflect the actual appearance, well known at that time, of this blessed city. In the centre, one sees the door that opens into the garden of Gethsemane. A little more ahead, on the right, is the entrance to the tomb in the rock, through which one can spot the uncovered sarcophagus. The first thing that strikes the spectator is the chorale composition of the sufferers around the figure of Christ.

One subsequently perceives the landscape, almost as if it were a second component of the painting. At this point, the two components together make the visual field explode.

The image of the lamentation is from a Dutch, not a German, tradition. Dürer interprets it in Italian terms, associating, in the composition of the scene, the figures three by three: Nicodemus, Magdalene, and Saint John the Evangelist align themselves in an ascending order under the cross. In the centre, the head of the Madonna, while she wrings her hands, is joined by the heads of the other two Marys, who cry with her, the three representing three ages of life.

Last is Joseph of Arimathea, who supports the body of Christ with the sudarium. The image of the body is particularly impressive for the deathly pale colour and for the complete abandon of the lifeless parts. Another Mary stands out for her clothing, fashioned from Dürer's period. She is weeping while holding Christ's hand.

Thus, a triad is formed, be it with the head of Christ and the Madonna, or of Christ and Joseph of Arimathea. The impression of these different triads contrasts with the great chromatic variety of the clothing. However, the rhythm that characterizes the harmonious composition of the figures is not to be found in the colours, since the exaggerated dimensions of the ointment vases breaks the regularity of the proportions, which is otherwise fairly consistent.

The beauty of the work lies chiefly in the depiction of the individual physiognomies and in the gradation of pain: from Magdalene's tear-stained eyes, to the expression of muted and composed suffering of almost all the rest of the figures, to the absolute desperation, shown by the gesture and wailing of the woman next to the Madonna.

The scene with the body of the dead Christ opens up toward the spectator, so that he can directly participate in the lamentation, following the Mary, clad in Renaissance attire, who lovingly clutches the hand of Christ. Since the entire scene is illuminated by a limpid "new light," the suffering of the lamentation is accompanied by a feeling of comfort, a feeling that Dürer makes delicately transpire from the John and Magdalene, whose hopeful gazes are turned toward this light. This, apparently, is the Christian message of the panel. According to an enduring medieval tradition, the figures of the donors are painted, kneeling at the bottom of the scene: on the right, the position of honour, the goldsmith Albrecht Glimm with his coat of arms and two sons; to the left, the late consort with her own coat of arms and daughter. A crown of thorns lies in the middle, between the two groups.