A great company of people had followed Jesus to his crucifixion, including not only his enemies, but his friends. The beloved disciple John was accompanied by Mary. "And many women were beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him; among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.

"When the even was come there came a rich man of Arimathea named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple. He went to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre and departed."[23]

[23] St. Matthew, chapter XXVII., verses 55-60.

During all this time two at least of the original company of women had lingered near while the body of Jesus was taken from the cross and made ready for burial. They were the mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. Even after Joseph's task was done and he had gone his way, they remained "sitting over against the sepulchre."

It is not unnatural to suppose that they may have had some share in the preparation of the body. Nicodemus, as we learn elsewhere, had brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, which it was the custom of the Jews to use in burial.[24] Both men must have been glad of the presence and help of the faithful women.

[24] St. John, chapter XIX., verse 39.

Poets and painters have dwelt much on these sad moments, supplying from the imagination the details omitted in the narrative. The women must at times have been unable to restrain their tears; natural grief must have its way. Then might the men have left them awhile alone with their dead, as they busied themselves with their task.

It is some such idea as this which inspired the painting of our illustration. The mother Mary supports the head of her son upon her bosom; Mary Magdalene stoops to kiss the lifeless hand; St. John approaches at one side with a mantle.

The body of Christ, wrapped in a cloth, has been laid upon a rock in a cavern. The agony of his cruel death is past, and the face is calm as of one who sleeps. The figure is, as we have seen it on the cross, robust and well knit. Only the nail prints in hands and feet show the manner of his dying. On the ground beside him is a basin with a sponge, surrounded by tokens of the crucifixion, the crown of thorns, the nails, and the superscription.

Antwerp Museum

We see in the Madonna the same stately and beautiful woman who carried her babe on the journey to Egypt. Her veil is now drawn well over her head, entirely concealing her hair. She has borne the cares of life with courage, and the years have touched her face but lightly. Even in the hour of anguish she lifts her eyes to heaven with resignation, yet one hand is extended with a gesture which seems to implore mercy.

Mary Magdalene is a much younger woman. She has peculiar reason for her devotion to Jesus, for he saved her from a strange fate.[25] Her impulsive and loving nature is now overwhelmed with grief. Her rich costume is in disorder, and her hair falls in loose locks over her shoulders. Her lovely face is very sad. Half kneeling, she presses her lips to the wound in the left hand. Her attitude and manner are full of humility, as if she felt herself unworthy to approach too near.

[25] St. Luke, chapter VIII., verse 2.

St. John regards the group with gentle sympathy. He is spoken of as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," so intimate was the relation between them. To his care Jesus intrusted the Mother Mary, and he now remains near as one of the few most deeply bereaved. He is very young, with a sensitive face and delicately cut features.

The subject of the picture is one which Van Dyck treated in several compositions. The Flemish title is "Nood Godes," the suffering of God. The Italians call it the Pietà, which means, compassion. One of the most celebrated works of art devoted to the theme is the marble group in Rome by Michelangelo.[26] Van Dyck must have seen this work on his visit to the Eternal City, and was no doubt inspired in some measure by its grandeur. We notice that in his picture the Mother extends her left hand in a gesture similar to that of the marble figure.

[26] See Chapter VI. in the volume on Michelangelo in the Riverside Art Series.