When Titian painted the Entombment, the plague was raging in Venice. The consciousness of death must have been on everyone’s mind, and perhaps specially on Titian’s, because he was very old. This work seems to be, in a way, his testimony to the world, this painting of the dead Christ and the living Mary, so silent and contained, yet somehow so united with her son in love.
There are two other central figures. One is Mary Magdalene, wild with grief, painted with enormous passion. She is fiercely angry about death: death is hateful, we are not meant for it. But on the other side of Christ is a very old man, coming as if in his second childhood on hands and knees. This is a self-portrait of the old Titian, affirming both his faith and his need of divine forgiveness.
The tomb where Christ will lie is a grand Renaissance construction, with dimly glimpsed statues on either side and a strange, almost hallucinatory landscape setting.
At the right there is a strange hand reaching up out of nothing, groping for light, for help, for salvation. To make this explicit, Titian has painted beneath it a small ex voto (a painted panel put on an altar as a silent prayer). In it Titian shows himself and his son Orazio on their knees, imploring deliverance from the epidemic. But before this painting reached the church, both of them were dead — of plague.
Was his prayer unanswered, his passion wasted? At the deepest level, the answer is no, because his passion has overcome death, drawing life out of darkness and wringing hope out of despair. In the purity of its beauty alone the Entombment celebrates eternity, which is what painting is all about.