“Just look at it!”: Deposition (c. 1933)

CSF12209

Deposition, c. 1933, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in.

A guest post by my late father, John S. Schmitt, written two years before his death in 2012.  The painting now hangs in the chapel he built for Trivium School. 

On the walls of my home I have a collection of fine works by Carl Schmitt, including two religious paintings.  It is one of these that I am proudest to own, to sit before and to think about.  It depicts the deposition of Christ, the taking down of his dead body from the cross.  Let me tell you some of the things I have delightfully discovered about the composition of this painting and how light reveals the values of the objects in the painting.

CSF22005 snapshot from Flip

Study for Deposition, pastel on paper, approx. 9 x 13 in.

At first glance, the arrangement of the composition is circular or, as the artist would put it, lyrical.  The huddled figures at the top with their supporting arms, the legs of the body, and the humble figure at the lower right constitute the principal shape of the painting.  Looking more closely, we see vertical structural elements, the hallmark of the epic: the arms gently but firmly supporting the weight of the dead body.  Finally, the angular forms in the contraposto of the body and the turn of the head, arms, and legs of Christ reveal dynamic or dramatic elements.  Thus both the lyrical and epic elements draw the eye to focus on the dramatic figure in the center.  The abstract and universal forms embedded in nature—the lyric, epic, and dramatic—are here brilliantly interwoven in a simple unity of mature and masterful composition.

Deposition - Gates Moore - Cropped and color corrected

Pieta, 1922, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.
A work inspired by the old masters both in its composition and in its use of contemporary dress, the latter unusual for Schmitt in a religious painting.

Along with the composition, the artist’s use of light to reveal form draws us into the contemplation of the reality before us.  It is light and dark which reveal all form.  The artist has delineated the form not only through his simple palette of the three primary colors but also the values of light and dark, most evident in the effulgence of light.  This light is truly mysterious.  Does it emanate from an unseen source outside the painting, or does it flow out from the sacred body itself?

Once again we are confronted with the mystery of the central figure in the painting.  And yet this aesthetically dynamic figure is a dead body!  Although surrounded by darkness, it seems to glow with a light beyond the power of nature.  As inspiring as the presence of light is in the painting, finally it is through the selective lack of light—what the artist called voids—that, paradoxically, reality is revealed for what it truly is.  Like the irony of the drama of the dead body at the center of the painting, the voids —the absence of light—serve an “ironic” or paradoxical function highlighting the significance of what is being depicted.

Thus this masterpiece allows us to glimpse what the physical eye alone is unable to perceive.  We realize something of the Grand Reality bodied forth in delightful contemplation of natural reason, faith, hope, and charity: the reality of the Incarnation in truth is represented.

CSF12209 - DETAIL

Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.  This painting was also featured in a post on the blog The Way of Beauty.

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