Visual Analysis of Manet’s “The Dead Christ with Angels”

Eduoard Manet was a 19th Century French painter. His painting The Dead Christ with Angels (1864) is roughly life-sized, a bit over five feet tall and slightly shorter width-wise. The canvas on which it is painted is rectangular and oriented vertically. Displaying spiritual imagery, the artwork depicts a lounging Christ within a cave, flanked on both sides by female angels and their massive wings.

Manet places a foreshortened Christ as the focal point of the image, directly in the center of the clear foreground, and supports the central figure by placing it between two cropped angels which lends the painting a pyramidal construction. Viewers’ eyes are immediately drawn into the painting by the foreshortened form of Christ, who lays upon a brilliant white sheet, appearing to almost come out of the canvas. Eyes then travel up the legs, over the loincloth, punctured hands and chest of Christ, only to rest for a moment on the figure’s face, which is obscured partially by shadow. Manet’s use of lighting and brushwork then lead viewers’ eyes over the expressive face of the angel to the right of Christ, across her midnight blue wings, and down her ochre garb to the foreground of the painting. Here, forms are rendered with extreme detail—viewers are meant to spend time taking in the serpent which slithers around a large stone inscribed with the Biblical passage Manet was representing with his artwork. To the left of the inscribed stone, two smaller rocks are strewn, one resembling a snail shell and the other with a metal grommet screwed into it. The serpent and clusters of rocks in the foreground lend the painting balance by countering the positions of the three large figures in the middle-ground. Furthermore, they implicate viewers’ positions relative to Christ by emphasizing the illusion of space. Christ overlaps the angel to his left, who is partially obscured by shadow as well. Her face shows lamentation, and her dark crimson robes and black wings accentuate the figures’ expression of emotion. The wings of the angels obscure much of the background of the cave, which is reduced to a mere gray gradient, a suggestion of a natural stone wall. Since much of the background is unreadable, the illusion of space on the picture plane does not read as exactly naturalistic. However, since the figures occupy most of the middle ground and there is a very clear foreground, the painting does not immediately appear radically stylized. Read as a whole, the figures in the painting create a triangle with Christ being the center and the angels being the two angled sides. The gap between Christ and the left angel, made even more visible by the angel’s dark-feathered wing, destabilizes the pyramid. Manet counterbalances the destabilization by cropping the bottom half of both angels out of the painting.

In The Dead Christ with Two Angels, Manet uses earth-tone hues, mainly primary colors with low intensity, to render a more true-to-life, or naturalistic and illusionistic scene. The high-value whites of Christ’s body and the sheet that surrounds him dominate the painting, the colors around the figure being much darker and less saturated. The cave that encloses the figures both in foreground and background is rendered in a cool slate grey, complemented by earthy browns. Manet also uses the same brown-gray color to make the figures seem dirty—the technique is most evident on Christ’s legs and chest. The angels are more colorful than Christ, though the value of the colors may be much lower. The left angel dons a crimson robe with a golden neckline. The color is emotionally associated with the blood and violence associated with the crucifixion of Christ and also directly complements the actual crimson puncture wounds visible on Christ’s body in the image itself. The left angel’s wings are monochromatic, perhaps because adding hue to them would disrupt the color harmonies of the painting. As viewers scan the painting from left to right, yellow becomes a motif that lends stability and rhythm to the painting—the golden collar corresponds with Christ’s faint halo and the bright ochre gown of the angel on the right. The mustard yellow of the gown pops out even more since it is right next to its complementary color, the rich indigo of the angel’s wing.

Manet uses a natural implied light source to lead the viewer’s eye across the canvas, model figures, and lend meaning to his work. Light filters in from the right, presumably from the opening of the cave, and falls mostly on Christ. The amount of light which lands on the sheet surrounding Christ and his porcelain skin itself creates a very high-value white which easily captures the eye. Manet’s treatment of light allows Christ to become the focal point of the image. Light also enhances the illusionistic qualities of all of figures in the image, since light is used to model the figures. Patches of Christ appear brighter where light would fall on him—his chest, as well as his left bicep, forearm, and leg, appear to pop out at viewers while the body parts in shadow, rendered in cool tones, seem to recede away.  Since Christ, the primary subject of the painting, is rendered mostly in shades of white, light and shadow arguably lend more meaning to the work than color. Manet also uses light in the painting to give Christ a more divine appearance—casting holy figures in bright, spiritual light has long been a practice in the history of art.

In The Dead Christ with Two Angels, brushwork is varied throughout the canvas in order to draw the viewer into an illusionistic scene only to subvert the sense of illusionism acheived—Manet’s hand is obscured and paint is thin in the foreground and on Christ’s body, while his hand is very visible and his paint application thick in the forms surrounding the immediate subject.  At first glance, the painting appears illusionistic since the artist uses fine brushwork to create the foreground and model Christ’s foreshortened body. However, illusionistic effects quickly wear off since Manet renders practically everything else with thicker paint and more visible brushstrokes. The face of Christ appears a bit blurry, since the artist departs from using line to suggest forms and instead uses feathery brushstrokes to imply the shadow, muck, blood, and wispy hair that covers it. Loose brushwork is perhaps most notable in the rendering of Christ’s unkempt beard. His facial hair is represented as small, dark brown vertical brushstrokes at the moustache and longer, darker brown around the figure’s cheeks. The ends of his beard-hair are made up of wispy golden-brown hairs made with such loose brushstrokes that the hair seems to merely fade into either the darkness of the background or Christ’s flesh itself. The artist’s brushwork is even more apparent in the painting’s fabrics: the golden dress worn by the right angel is made up of thick paint applied with quick, broad brushstrokes. The artist’s technique creates movement—the way the cloth appears to billow leads viewer’s eyes rightward to the loose brushwork of the angel’s wing to suggest the fluidity of fine rippling feathers. While there are no remaining pencil marks or passages of unmarked canvas, Manet’s choices draw viewers into what they expect to be a naturalistic painting only to turn the expectation of illusionism on its head as thick, visible brushstrokes remind the audience of the materiality of the artistic medium.

By adhering to traditional religious subject matter, construction, and color while simultaneously subverting artistic norms involving brushwork, illusionistic space, and the materiality of painting itself, Manet is able to propel Biblical imagery to the front of the avant-garde. The artist’s depiction of Christ as an unidealized human form is a move away from standard religious iconography. The melancholy mood of the painting, typical of Biblical narratives, is highlighted by the dismal color palette of the painting, as well as the evocative expressions occupying the figures’ faces. Both angels lament. Christ stares vacantly at the viewer, mouth agape, tears on the brim of his eyes. He seems to ask: why have you forsaken me? The figure’s expression, combined with the cadaverous rendering of its form, humanizes Christ and evokes empathy from viewers. The implication of the viewer is one deliberate choice Manet made to engage with the painting’s audience. Another is the painter’s use of foreshortening, which places viewers directly in Christ’s presence. Between the implicated viewer and the figures slithers a serpent across some strewn rocks that give the painting illusionistic depth. One could interpret the separation of the viewer and Christ by a snake, a Biblical symbol for evil and Satan, as Manet highlighting the hypocritical disparities between Christian doctrine and Christian actions. Much as the illusionism of the painting quickly wears off upon scrutiny, the façade of benevolence promoted by religious institutions such as the Catholic Church quickly fades as one witnesses the corruption evident in the system. Manet’s painting is a meditation upon both the positives and negatives of Christian doctrine, highlighting its capacity to build empathy and compassion while also criticizing the fraud evident in the overarching structures that promote the faith.

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