Titian (c1575)

Painted the year before he and his son, Orazio, died in the Venice ravaged by plague, this is Titians utterly extraordinary final work. It is set in the gloomy shadow of death, the edges of figures dissolving into morbid darkness. The figure of Christ feels unfinished, as if already inhabiting another realm, and approaching him on his knees is the artist as Nicodemus, their touching hands highlighting the act of painting, while the old man begs for final forgiveness or perhaps a miracle of redemption. The lack of sympathetic connection between the subjects and the almost overwhelming darkness – the air they breathe seems almost poisoned – constitute a picture of exquisite desolation, balanced only by the old mans rosy robe and the dynamism and urgency of Magdalene, who cries out in what somehow looks like both grief and victory. It also represents an artistic manifesto: a response to Michelangelos more famous sculpture on the same subject, and a tribute by Titian, both to his affection and admiration for his deceased Florentine rival, and to the power of the medium of painting itself.