A type of “Man of Sorrows” image, the Dead Christ Supported by Angels is a devotional trope originating in the late Middle Ages. It typically shows a naked, half-length Christ standing up in a sarcophagus, his wounds prominently displayed so as to invite meditation on his suffering. One or more angels tend to him—they may embrace him, mourn his passing, unwrap his burial shroud (to give viewers a better look), display instruments of the passion, keep him propped up in the tomb, or, as we will see below, prepare to welcome him back to life.
One of the earliest examples of this imagery is the marble relief at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Originally a lectern adornment for the pulpit in Pisa’s cathedral, it shows two angels unveiling Christ’s body, presenting it to us like a eucharistic host. Their raised arms and slanted legs form a mandorla-like frame around him.
The fifteenth-century alabaster sculpture shown below was formerly partially painted, and the angels formerly wore diadems on their foreheads (one survives). “This is an immensely virtuoso carving for such a small scale,” writes art historian Kim W. Woods—notice the texture of the angels’ wings and hair, the lining of Christ’s ecclesiastical robe, and the plants at Christ’s feet. Notice, too, the intricately carved emblem on Christ’s brooch: a pelican pecking at her breast. Reputed to have fed her young with own blood, the pelican was a common medieval symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love.
In the Leipzig Man of Sorrows by Master Francke, Christ and three angels stand in a shallow space in front of the cross. It’s unclear whether Christ is on the edge of death or has already crossed over. In his left hand he holds the scourge—or tries to (his hand is either weak and cramped with pain, if alive, or if dead, afflicted rigor mortis). His other hand gestures to his side wound, still wet with blood, as if, like Thomas, he’s about to probe it. Peeking up over Christ’s shoulder is a full-size angel, who tenderly drapes him with a diaphanous veil. At the bottom of the painting two smaller angels kneel on either side, the one holding the birch, the lance, and the sponge-topped reed, the other holding the pillar of flagellation; they both struggle to support the dead weight of Christ’s arms.
The angels at Christ’s waist in Master Francke’s Hamburg Man of Sorrows, instead of holding instruments of torture, hold a lily and a sword, symbols of the Last Judgment. (In visualizations of that event, Christ is often shown with a lily coming out of his right ear, signifying an “innocent” verdict for the faithful, and a sword coming out of his left ear, declaring guilty those who did not know him.) Three angels at the top remove the cheap, mock kingly garment the Romans had thrown on him to replace it with his due: a finely embroidered robe befitting a true king.