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Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Rubens Pieter Paul

(Siegen 1577 - Antwerp 1640)

While in the past this Lamentation over the Dead Christ was ascribed to Antoon Van Dyck, today critics agree that it is by Peter Paul Rubens. Recent research has shown that the painting only entered the Borghese Collection when Camillo Borghese purchased it sometime in the 1810s or 20s.

What is less clear is the context of the work’s execution. It may have been commissioned by Cardinal Peretti Montalto, Rubens’s protector during his first stay in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century. Comparison with other paintings by the artist from this period confirms that our canvas dates to those years.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 180x136

19th-century frame with cymatium moulding and large frieze with acanthus leaf and acorn motifs, 212.5 x 171.5 x 12 cm


Rome, Camillo Borghese, post 1818; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 10, no. 9; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1965 Bruxelles, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique
  • 1987-1988 Roma, Palazzo Barberini
  • 1989 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage Museum
  • 1990 Padova, Palazzo della Ragione
  • 1992 Canberra, National Gallery of Australia; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria
  • 1995 Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 2004 Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
  • 2005 Mantova, Palazzo Ducale
  • 2009-2010 Siena, Complesso museale di Santa Maria della Scala
  • 2013 Lens, Louvre-Lens
  • 2016-2017 Milano, Palazzo Reale; Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art
  • 2019 San Francisco, Legion of Honor; Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914 Tito Venturini Papari
  • 1936 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1958 Renato Massi (frame)
  • 1987 Restauratori della Soprintendenza
  • 1988 Restauratori della Soprintendenza / Rolando Dionisi


The work was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario, where it is described as ‘the Deposition of the Cross, by Vendich, 8 spans 1 inch wide, 8 spans high’.

The attribution to Van Dyck was probably made on the basis of an 18th-/19th-century inscription located on the back of the canvas (‘No. 9, by Vandich’). This name was later accepted by a number of scholars (Piancastelli 1891, p. 407; Venturi 1893, p. 196; Fierens 1920, p. 59); while initially leaning toward an anonymous Genoese master, Cantalamessa (1912, n. 411) also came round to favouring this thesis. Oldenbourg (1916, pp. 265, 274, 276, and 1921, p. 20) was the first to propose the name of Rubens, an attribution generally upheld by critics today. This scholar dated the canvas to roughly 1605, that is, during the artist’s second stay in Rome; yet later critics have tended to dissent from Oldenbourg’s chronology, placing the execution of the work in the years of Rubens’s first Roman period, between 1601 and 1602. Writers supporting this earlier date point to both the proportions of the figures – a detail first noted by Otto van Veen – and the close resemblance between the Virgin here and Saint Helen in the altarpiece for the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (today held in the cathedral museum of Grasse: see Müller Hofstede 1977, p. 172; Jaffé 1989, p. 148; Guarino 1990, p. 17; Rubens 1990, p. 42; Balis 1995, p. 298; Paolini 2016, pp. 144-145 Granata 2020, p. 43).

Of unknown provenance, the canvas has given rise to a long debate as to the circumstances of its entry into the Borghese Collection. Some scholars have proposed that the Lamentation was given to Scipione by Cardinal Peretti di Montalto, who may have commissioned the work: indeed Vincenzo I Gonzaga designated Peretti to be Rubens’s protector during his first years in Rome (Jaffé 1977, p. 61, and 1989 p. 148; on this topic, see also Rubens 1990; Guarino 1990; Paolini 2016).

While doubts regarding the commissioning of the work still remain, the hypothesis that Scipione received the canvas as a gift was disproved in the wake of the discovery that it was among the paintings purchased by Camillo Borghese between the second and third decades of the 19th century. Indeed documents recording these transactions mention a work by ‘Vandich depicting the Deposition of the Cross’, a description which corresponds to the entry in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario (Costamagna 2003, p. 103).

Very recent research has further led to the possible identification of the work with a Deposition known to be in possession of James Durno in the 1690s, a British art dealer active in Rome (see Coen 2020, pp. 283-285); if this hypothesis is correct, it would add another detail in aiding scholars to reconstruct the painting’s history.

Rubens combined elements of the northern European and Italian traditions in the creation of this Lamentation, the episode between the deposition and burial of Christ. Traces of the former influence are evident in the choice of incorporating the sarcophagus to represent the site of the entombment, while the position of Jesus with respect to the Virgin, who supports her son’s back rather than holding him on her lap, is a motif connected with the latter. This same arrangement is in fact found in one of the altarpieces painted by Correggio in 1524 for the Bono Chapel in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma (today in the Galleria Nazionale), of which Rubens possessed a copy. Other possible 16th-century models for Christ’s sitting position may include Giuseppe Porta’s Lamentation with Three Angels in Dresden (Jaffé 1989, p. 148; see also Rubens 1990; Balis 1995) and Tintoretto’s Lamentation in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice: in the latter painting, Joseph of Arimathea holds up Jesus by his right shoulder, a motif adopted in our canvas (Paolini 2016).

Christ’s right arm echoes a well-known device from ancient art deriving from The Death of Meleager, the relief held in the Capitoline Museums; it further closely resembles Raphael’s famous Deposition, which Rubens may have seen directly in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia (held today by the Galleria Borghese, inv. no. 369). The motif reappears in prototypes by Titian and in Caravaggio’s canvas for Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome (today in the Pinacoteca Vaticana), which was executed in the same period as the work in question (Guarino 1990; Costamagna 2005, p. 77).

The putto depicted on the extreme right of the sarcophagus may be another reference to ancient art; in the view of David Jaffé (2010, p. 96), this is an allusion to the Child Strangling a Goose in Palazzo Altemps in Rome.

In the Borghese canvas, Rubens demonstrates not only familiarity with ancient culture but also with Christian theology, as several elements of the work make clear: in addition to the sarcophagus itself, which alludes to the Sacrament of the Altar, we note two of its ornamentations: the relief of a putto tending the fire, a probable reference to the survival of the soul after death, and the representation of a ram, a symbol connected to the Jubilee as a time for the remission of sins (Paolini 2016).

The painting was enlarged at an unknown date, perhaps to adapt it to its present frame after it was removed from its original context. It thus lost its initial proportions, which had allowed the canvas to be placed next to a contemporary drawing made from the Descent from the Cross (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg); the latter work may in fact have been a preparatory study for a pendant that was never realised. We do not know the original destination of the Borghese Lamentation; yet the layout of the composition such that it can be viewed from below may suggest that it was intended for a church (Rubens 1990; Guarino 1990; Paolini 2016).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

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