Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ invites us to contemplate Christ’s broken body and to stand at his feet as his body is laid out in preparation for his entombment. Contemplating this image is an intense experience. We see the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet up close, but this does not have a gory effect. Instead we feel the utter exhaustion and emptying of oneself that we read on Christ’s face, and we are faced with the fact that he has given us all he had.
To the left, two mourning faces enter into the scene. Both faces are twisted in pain, weeping for Jesus. One, an older woman, could be Mary, his mother. The other, a younger man, possibly represents the Beloved Disciple. The two figures stand as symbols of the Christian community, the Church, which stands at the Cross on this day to once again come face to face with the reality of Christ’s ultimate self-gift. Their tears are ones of sorrow, loss, brokenness, and defeat, a fitting reaction to the dead Jesus. But the tears also remind us of the reason for Christ’s sacrifice: to undo the bondage of sin and ultimately set us free from human suffering.
A distinctive feature of this image is the foreshortened, vertical form of Christ’s body, which we see from foot first. Foot first means seeing the part of his body that was closest to the ground, nearest the dirt, rocks, and thorns of life’s path. This perspective emphasizes the full human experience Jesus lived and endured, even the unjust and violent Death that took all he had. Seeing the feet this way also recalls his teaching to serve, his call to do as he had done in washing the feet of his followers. Showing the feet of the dead Christ calls us to recognize the gift of service seen to its ultimate end of laying down one’s life for another. Standing at the feet of Christ, we are exactly where we are called to be.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.