In this painting, Giovanni Bellini returns to a theme he confronted numerous times over the course of his work: the Madonna and John the Apostle seated on the ground to support the body of Christ taken down from the cross. Various figures are arranged around the central subjects, most likely painted with the assistance of one of Bellini's collaborators. To the right there is the figure of a monk, an anachronism in the story of Christ which demonstrates that the painting was of a devotional rather than narrative nature and intended for meditation.
The monochrome painting technique is particularly interesting, giving the impression of a preparatory study and prompting some critics to consider the possibility that the painting is unfinished. Indeed, according to sixteenth century Venetian scholar Paolo Pino, Giovanni Bellini was accustomed to creating carefully executed preparatory studies to which he then added color. An alternative interpretation is that the work was a model left in the workshop as a template for other paintings.