The sculpture's large, ambitious composition, the gravity of its subject, and its exquisite execution mark a high-point in this pioneering artist's career..."
Surrounding three sides of the sarcophagus, Joseph of Arimathea, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus lay Christ to rest, as two workmen supporting the tomb lid look on. Each witness seems wracked by a unique mix of emotions, among them disbelief, anguish, sympathy, and love. We, the viewers, complete the circle of mourners and occupy a privileged position before the body of Christ. The figures' lifelikeness, the convincing way in which they occupy space, and the exquisite refinement of modeling and color draw us closer. To take in so much detail, time slows to a crawl. In this way, the sculpture creates its own conditions for contemplation, whether as a religious aid or a virtuoso artwork; its maker, Luisa Roldán, intended it to function in both ways. The expressive intensity of the sculpture is unexpectedly amplified, not diminished, by its small size.
Like many artists, Roldán started out in her father's workshop. There she learned to make lifesized wooden statues—painted to imitate the color and texture of skin, hair, and textiles—to adorn altarpieces in the churches and monasteries of southern Spain. She formed her own workshop with her husband and brother-in-law, working in Seville, Cádiz, and finally Madrid, where, in the early 1690s, her creativity, mastery of materials, and ambition earned her the position of sculptor to the king of Spain. In adapting to the needs and tastes of the court, Roldán turned to clay, a material more widely used in Italy, modeling statuette groups that often represent episodes in the infancy of Christ, and bringing them to life with paint.
In the winter of 1700/1701, a decade after developing this new type of sculpture, Roldán set about to make a gift for the new Bourbon king, Philip V, who had just risen to the Spanish throne. The result was the Entombment, which must have pleased the king, as her court position was renewed. The sculpture's large, ambitious composition, the gravity of its subject, and its exquisite execution mark a high-point in this pioneering artist's career.
Peter Jonathan Bell
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts