Venusti found inspiration for this painting in Michelangelo's drawing of circa 1538-44 (fig. 1; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) - one of three 'presentation drawings' that Michelangelo offered as a token of affection to the poet Vittoria Colonna. These highly finished drawings contain a spiritual intensity that inspired many of Michelangelo's contemporaries, Venusti chief among them. Venusti was closely associated with Michelangelo from the time that he produced a small-scale copy after the artist's Last Judgement for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1548 (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). Following the success of that commission, Michelangelo allowed Venusti to produce many more paintings after his own designs, all on a small scale. The two artists also collaborated, Venusti filling in background details for some of Michelangelo's figural compositions.
In addition to a preparatory drawing for this painting (Teylers Museum, Haarlem), Venusti also produced other versions of this composition, most notably the Deposition with the Madonna and two Angels in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. The figural group here remains faithful to that of the Borghese picture and the drawings, but we can note alterations to the landscape. The enhanced size of the present version (the Borghese painting measuring 56 x 40 cm.) accounts for the more detailed description of the Crown of Thorns and the Nails of the Passion in the foreground. Venusti more fully articulated the landscape here as well, elaborating the rocks in the middleground as well as the mountains in the background, punctuated with buildings of far-off towns, their contours echoing the position of the Virgin's outstretched arms, further emphasizing her emotion.
In his doctoral thesis Georg W. Kamp (op. cit.) dates this work to circa 1546 and notes that when published by Frey (1909) it was signed 'M.B. Inventor Marcellus Venusto x F x'(beneath the angel on the right); the signature has been lost during restoration.