In Vittore Carpaccio’s haunting picture Meditation on the Passion of Christ, Jesus is seated on a throne inscribed with Hebrew characters and flanked by two wizened, white-bearded hermits, but is he dead or merely dreaming—playing possum, as it were? It’s impossible to tell, though Catholic doctrine assures us that he died on the cross. The rocky terrain stretches away to the horizon, much of it as lifeless as an ossuary. Much of it also looks brittle or already broken, alluding perhaps to Italian memories of earthquakes, on the fascination with fracture. The people, the ancient ruins, the sparse plants and living creatures—all serving some emblematic function—are packed together so tightly that many impinge on one another, and everything, even the tiniest pebble, has its own hard contour.

The Meditation is not one of...


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