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Gopnik's Daily Pic: Riccio at the National Gallery

By Blake Gopnik

Here's the first in an occasional feed of posts from my Tumblr site at, where I write a few lines every morning on an object or image that's been on my mind.


Daily Pic: "The Entombment," from around 1515, by the Renaissance artist known as Riccio. Possibly the most overlooked masterpiece at the National Gallery in Washington.

So much -- too much -- to say:

-- What's the meaning of the rocks and trees, which could almost have been made by Giotto, 200 years earlier? Do they point back to a purer, more authentic moment of "primitive" Christianity? Is the fourteenth century standing for the early Christian church? (A 16th-century text has Riccio showing off his knowledge of earlier Italian art.)

-- And then, in front of that "primitive" landscape, Riccio gives us the most exquisite re-do of a Roman frieze. But would he have felt a contrast between the two zones in his relief, or a natural harmony between them -- despite our modern concern with their stylistic differences.

-- The fabulous high-relief arms of some mourners block our view of other figures' faces. This could be a sculptor trying to capture a crucial feature of two-dimensional perspective -- a feature called "occlusion" -- whereby space is mapped out by showing what parts of one object overlap another.

-- There are a number of "privileged" viewpoints on this piece. Depending where you look, mini-dramas play out, while other story lines pass out of view. But the entire piece is meant to be seen from below -- while we're on our knees, praying for Riccio's soul? (The piece may have been meant for his funerary monument.)

By Blake Gopnik  | September 24, 2010; 3:07 PM ET
Categories:  Blake Gopnik, Museums  | Tags:  Daily Pic  
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