My favourite painting: Paula Rego

'It’s a very dynamic and complex composition.'

Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints, 1490–92, by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), 55in by 81in, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Paula Rego says:
This is a very moving picture, very different from other pictures by him. I find it much more emotional and full of anguish. It’s a very dynamic and complex composition. In the museum, you can see it from quite far away and it’s startling. I love it.

Dame Paula Rego is an artist. Her latest exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1 from September 28 until November 12

John McEwen comments on Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints:
Dame Paula has always based her art on storytelling and, for her, the greatest story is the life of Christ. Its tragic aftermath was the lamentation, the final act after his crucifixion, mourned on Good Friday before the triumph of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

In each of the Gospels, the key figure is Joseph of Arimethea, a rich disciple of Jesus, who asked the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, for permission to lay the body of Jesus in the tomb that Joseph had prepared for his own burial. It was Joseph who wrapped him in fine linen—Mary, Mary Magdalene and other women present are seen as passive onlookers.

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Botticelli dramatises the biblical account, making the grief-stricken women the principals. Mary swoons into the arms of St John. Mary Magdalene, at her shoulder, holds up the Three Nails. Joseph of Arimethea is replaced by assorted saints. The painting was originally for a Florentine chapel whose patron saint was St Paul, hence his presence (second from left), with his martyred counterpart St Peter (right). The penitential St Jerome (far left) may have been the donor’s patron saint.

The picture reflected the born-again puritanical zeal inspired in Botticelli by the Dominican friar, Savonarola, who castigated the secular Florentines, especially the artist’s patrons, the Medici bankers. Vasari’s claim that Botticelli was a follower or piagnone (sniveller), who later relinquished art and died impoverished, is not supported by extant facts.