Vittore Carpaccio, The Meditation on the Passion of Christ, ca. 1490; oil and tempera on wood, 26 3/16 × 33 1/4 in. (66.5 × 84.5 cm); John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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...

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