My goal in creating the Cross and Crucifixion Scene of the Week widget was to collect a set of 53 cross and crucifixion scenes which, taken as a whole, could illustrate the range of iconographic traditions, as artists attempted to provide a visual depiction of the cross which has become so central to the Christian tradition. So, each week here at the blog I will post a few comments about the particular image which is being featured that week.
This week's image has been a Deposition scene by Duccio di Buoninsegna, an Italian painter who was born in 1255 and died in 1319. His work is closely associated with the town of Siena, his birthplace. You can read a biography of Duccio and see more of his paintings at the Web Gallery of Art website.
The "deposition" refers to the removal of Christ from the cross, and it has a detailed iconographic tradition of its own. Here you can see Joseph of Arimathea (standing on the ladder) and John (standing on the ground) as they lower the body of Jesus, while Nicodemus is shown below, who has been assigned the task of removing the nails in order to lower the body. There are women at the scene, and Duccio has chosen to focus on Mary as the primary figure among the women in attendance, as she reaches out and embraces the body of her son as it is being lowered down by the two men, while Mary Magdalene kisses Jesus's hand. These are all typical elements in the iconography of the deposition scene, as we will see when we compare other deposition scenes in coming weeks.
The reason I chose this image, aside from its sheer power and beauty, is because of the attention paid here to Nicodemus removing the nails. This is a distinctive feature of the iconographical tradition, even though it does not form part of the Biblical text. One of my own personal interests in studying iconography is this back and forth between the Biblical text, extra-Biblical narratives, and the narratives represented in visual form.
Nicodemus is a character in the Gospel of John. The gospel text tells us that Nicodemus participated in the preparation Jesus's body for burial: "Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight." There is no mention of the nails, however.
There are actually only three references to the nails in the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, "Doubting" Thomas wants to see "in his hands the imprint of the nails" so that he can put his "finger into the place of the nails," so that he might believe. In Acts, Peter preaches about the crucifixion: "you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death." There is a vivid image in Colossians, when Paul writes that God "brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross."
The tradition of the crucifixion has also been linked with the Psalm in the Hebrew Bible which reads, "They pierced my hands and my feet." There is a similar passage in Zechariah: "They will look on me whom they have pierced."
Yet while there is little discussion of the nails in the Biblical text, the tradition of the "Holy Nails" became extremely important in the Catholic Church, as you can read in this article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. For example, one of the debates concerned whether there were four nails, or just three, with only one nail being used for the feet. In addition to the question that artists faced in depicting the scene, there was also the question of the many nails (thirty of more) which were venerated in various places in Europe as being true nails from the cross. One legend even reports that Saint Helena had one of the holy nails melted down and shaped into a bridle for Constantine's horse, while another one was used in the making of Constantine's crown.
I am not sure where the tradition of showing Nicodemus removing the nails begins. I checked the extra-Biblical Gospel of Nicodemus, and did not find anything there. If anyone has some suggestions about how to pursue the link between Nicodemus and the nails any further, I would be grateful!
Meanwhile, here is the Deposition scene by Duccio di Buoninsegna; you can see an even larger version at Web Gallery of Art: