Raffaello Painting: Transport of Christ to the Grave

Pala Baglione, Borghese Entombment
Coinciding with Easter this year, we look, admired as never before, at one of Raphael's main masterpieces, of which this year, the fifth centenary of his death.

This is the "Transport of Christ to the Grave", better known as "Baglioni Deposition", made in 1507, by a Raphael in his early twenties, and preserved in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The extraordinary painting, an oil on board, is the central part of a larger composition, which over time has been dismembered. The starting point for the work was given by a serious blood event that took place in Perugia in 1500.

The young and bold Grifonetto Baglioni, was the victim of a family revenge, in the context of the feud that was unleashed among the pretenders to dominate the lordship of the city. The victim, among other things, had become the protagonist of a previous terrible bloodbath against his relatives.

Grifonetto's mother, Atalanta Baglioni, wanting to identify herself with Mary's pain for the loss of her son, and identifying the body of Jesus as if she were his son, asked the new and promising Raphael for a painted panel that would transfigure his pain. 


Raphael was able to express in this, which was immediately considered a surprising, like few others, representation of the deposed Christ, a great function of art, or at least one of its great functions: to be able to soothe the many wounds of life, asking through it pity and forgiveness to God, and to all. It is from this profound concept of art that the many "miserere" are derived, which over the centuries have been portrayed, as entreaties, for God to have mercy.

"Miserere nobis" says the liturgy. Many times these words have turned into musical notes, sometimes as shouts in the most dramatic compositions, or transformed again into the many depictions of the greatest artists' pietas. Thus Christian art has developed over time the paradoxical beauty of pain, made to ask and beg for help. Atalanta Baglioni, gathering in his arms the dying son, who expired asked for forgiveness for his misdeeds and forgave his attackers, had no hesitation in associating the death of his son with that of Jesus. And this is what Raphael, a very young painter, but with already demonstrated ability, was able to interpret.


Let's get to work (picture 2). At the center of the work, with skilful geometry, is the body of Christ who, inert and pale, supported by three men, from left Joseph of Arimathea, then Nicodemus, identified as a saint, and a beautiful young man, who supports the the last flap of the sheet, certainly portraying Grifonetto, is brought to the dark cave of the tomb, located on the left. Between Giuseppe and Nicodemo a weeping S. Giovanni. The group is placed under a clear sky, which is a sign of hope, and a premonition of Easter. The body of Jesus has just been lowered from the cross, which appears distant on the Golgotha hill, still surrounded by the darkness that fell on the earth during his agony.


The pain of the pious women unfolds around Christ. And it is to these that our attention owes some more particular reason for reflection. In the center, almost first, or second after Jesus, Mary of Magdala appears, depicted, as a long tradition has it, as a sorrowful and beautiful woman, the great sinner.

The diversity of colors, if you look closely at them, is one of the most touching details. And to characterize it even more, Raphael paints Maddalena conspicuously crying. In addition, a strong gust of wind gives movement, almost unnaturally, to his long hair, as if to signify all the passion that crossed his heart for the master. To update his figure, Raphael gives her the appearance of Zenobia, Grifonetto's wife.


* Note It was St. Gregory the Great who interpreted it thus, who rereading the Gospel of Luke, associated the anonymous sinner in the house of the Pharisee with Mary of Magdala. Today, as Pope Francis also suggests, it would no longer be interpreted in this direction



Her sweet hand, of a loving woman,
sprayed with blood, supports that of his master, paler and colder, almost gray.

"... In the faces of these women there are many faces, perhaps we find your face and mine. Like them we can feel pushed to walk, not to resign ourselves to the fact that things must end like this ”.

Behind the beautiful young man, then, on the right of the table and in the background, almost hidden, there is the tangle, one might say, of the women of pain. Maria her mother is at the center, passed out and supported by the other pious women. These figures, still placed under the penumbra of Golgotha, are those many women who, as the Gospel of Mark says, followed and served Jesus from Galilee (chap. 15). In addition to the three Marys: Maria his mother (who has the face of Atalanta Baglioni here), Maria di Magdala and Maria mother of Giacomo, there were "many other" women, says the evangelist. It is not difficult to imagine this silent presence beyond the right side of the painting. For Raffaello, among other things, the number of people present on the scene is exactly the majority. The many women who have always surrounded the life of Jesus, and who in the meditations of our Pope Francis, are rediscovering themselves as an absolutely essential part in the salvific plan of Christ. His homily in the Easter vigil of 2017 marks almost a point of no return.

 "... unlike the disciples, they are there ... capable of not running away, capable of resisting, of facing life as it presents itself and of enduring the bitter taste of injustice"

"They are there," and that's exactly what Raphael paints.

They are always there, as from all the narration of the Gospels, and more abundantly present under the cross, around the Christ deposed and buried in the sepulcher. It is important to note that the position of women, in Raphael's painting, is in line with the distant cross, and most of all the figure of Mary his Mother: an evident symbol of her function as co-redemptrix. It is they, the pious women, who took care of Jesus after his burial, looking for him to honor him, driven by an undeniable affection: and it is to them that He showed himself risen.

In the Orthodox church, among other things, pious women, called "mirofore", occupy an absolutely important place. The liturgy of the third Sunday after Easter is dedicated to them.


In Raphael's painting, then, in addition to the women, a chorus of presences is the setting for the body of Jesus, especially those who in a more manifest or less silent way showed their profound affection for Christ, and in part have already been mentioned .

There is the young John, who placed his head on the heart of Jesus, and who here shakes hands in a grip of composed and restrained pain.

There is Nicodemus, the doctor of the Temple, who was immediately drawn to Jesus, and who secretly followed him, recognizing him an absolute primacy up to the maximum recognition of his divine sonship. (His face in the interpretation of Raphael owes much to Michelangelo's unfinished S. Matteo).

There is Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple who is not a prominent one, but willing to offer the master a worthy burial, making his property available to him: Christ also owes our possessions.

And there is the handsome Grifonetto, who in the last moment of his life asked for forgiveness from Christ. A great warning to say that until the very end the invocation of Jesus as our savior is possible.




"For His wounds

we have been healed"


Other details deserve a mention.

The wounds of Christ, his wounds, so discreet, but so present.

Christian art has always had the opportunity to represent them with particular care and evidence. So much so that in the Lenten period, the Christian people invoke Mary to have her son's wounds "imprinted in my heart". The meaning is strengthened if we remember Isaiah's prophecy: "for his wounds we have been healed". Perhaps it is not secondary that the location of Raphael's painting was in the Baglioni family chapel in S. Francesco al Prato. A Franciscan church therefore, whose founding father was honored with the miraculous wounds of Christ.

At the bottom left there is a shower head, the last development of the Dandelion plant. This flower had always been interpreted as the mysterious propagation, thanks to its seeds carried by the wind, of faith in the world. But a last reference, certainly sad and current, can not be made. Around the body of Christ a series of people frame and accompany the sepulcher. Today the many deaths generated by the terrible epidemic do not have the comfort of those who loved them in life. And our heart tightens at the thought of this extreme solitude. The comparison with Raphael's work is almost terrible, mysterious. May our pity, our recollection, our prayer be "the strength of the figure" that accompanies this very long group of brothers, to the extreme greeting.

Article by Prof. Enzo Gibellato