Filippino Lippi’s Dead Christ (c.1500) and the Artist’s Turban

This small but beautiful painting by Filippino Lippi of Nicodemus holding up the dead body of Christ is on the poetic level an image of the artist holding up his divine "work of art", the figure of Christ. Unlike St Luke, though, who is widely identified by art historians as a legendary painter, Nicodemus is rarely recognized for the celebrated sculptor he was once thought to have been. Even if his craft is mentioned, few note how later artists identified with the earlier one even when they are considered a self-portrait. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Filippino Lippi, The Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels (c.1500) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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Nicodemus is only mentioned three times in the Bible (all in the Gospel of John) but through later myths and texts like the Gospel of Nicodemus, he was very popular by the late Middle Ages, well documented throughout Christendom as the most divine sculptor. Indeed the Crucifix he 'carved', an object of veneration and pilgrimage in the Renaissance, still hangs in the cathedral in Lucca.1 It is thus unimaginable that artists would not have identified with his figure. In both of Lippi's predellas* of the dead Christ - there is a similar one in the National Gallery, London - he even wears a turban.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Filippino Lippi, The Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels, detail

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Turbans were a staple of the artist's studio used to keep paint and marble dust out of their hair.2 At left clockwise, starting at upper right, Van Eyck painted his self-portrait in one; Dürer depicted the artist Michael Wolmegut, his teacher, wearing a black turban while, in the lower left corner, Adam Kraft sculpted his self-portrait in a turban too. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Clockwise from top left: Filippino Lippi, The Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels, detail; Jan van Eyck, Self-portrait or Man in a Red Turban (1433); Dürer, Portrait of Michael Wolmegut (1516); Adam Kraft, Self-portrait detail from the Eucharistic Tabernacle (1493-6) in St. Lorenz, Nuremberg

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Turbans were so ubiquitous in studios that Rembrandt's many figures wearing turbans are on the poetic level "artists in the studio". He may have copied turban designs from his Jewish neighbors to portray Jews in general but he also did so because the same turban suggests an artist. The man in the upper image at far left, for example, looking inwards as Rembrandt did, is in the lower corner of the composition, a space traditionally reserved for an artist's symbol.3 In confirmation that art is the subject and that the turbans are really artists' turbans, a boy directly below Christ (detail below) 'draws' with a pointing finger on the ground, to suggest either the unengraved part of the plate or a primed canvas. 

Turbans were for a long time a prominent feature of studio life. Look out for them, no matter whose head they are on: Nicodemus', a sultan's or an Ashkenazi Jew's.

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Christ Preaching ("La Petite Tombe") with detail below (c.1652) Etching, engraving and drypoint

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* A predella is the short platform on which an altarpiece stands. It was often decorated along its length with a series of small, horizontal panels painted with a story related in some way to the altarpiece above. 

More Works by Lippi (Filippino)

Notes:

1. Corine Schlief has provided an excellent account of both the popularity of the idea that Nicodemus was a sculptor and art historical neglect of it. "Nicodemus and Sculptors: Self-Reflexivity in Works by Adam Kraft and Tilman Riemenschneider", Art Bulletin 75, Dec. 1993, pp. 604-14

2. Schlief, p.612

3. An artist's signature is traditionally placed in the lower right-hand corner corner though it often appears in the left-hand corner as well. Its appearance in other positions, other than the lower corners, normally suggests either that the artist is using the placement of his signature to add meaning to the image or that he or she is concerned that a signature there will unbalance the composition. In the case of this print Rembrandt would have drawn the figure in the lower right-hand corner before the image was inverted in printing. This position, then, combined with the figure's inward-looking stance and the turban strongly suggest that he is a representation of the artist himself.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 09 Nov 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.