A subject in Christian art which shows the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus Christ. It is a particular form of the Lamentation, the moment when Christ’s body was removed from the cross and mourned over by his friends and disciples. The Pietà is most commonly seen in sculpture, but examples also exist in painting and drawing.
The Pietà is one of the three primary representations of the Virgin Mary in sorrow; along with the Stabat Mater (stands the mother) and the Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows). These representations were prevalent in Christian iconography from the thirteenth century onwards – in painting, sculpture and musical compositions in the case of the Stabat Mater.
Pietà is a particular depiction of an imagined moment in the Life of Christ where he is mourned over by the Virgin Mary alone. Representations that show his followers alongside are instead referred to as a lamentation. Although not mentioned directly in any of the Gospels, the idea and image of the Pietà resonated with Christian communities and was developed further in later reflections on the aftermath of the crucifixion:
I took my tender child on my lap and looked at Him, but he was dead: I looked at him again and again and could have shattered into a thousand pieces from those mortal wounds it received. It gave many bottomless sighs: the eyes shed many heartbroken bitter tears, my appearance became utterly miserable.”
- Heinrich Suso, The Exemplar (1295 — 1366)
The Pietà in Renaissance Europe
The Pietà was first developed in Germany as a devotional image to aid prayer and contemplation. These images were called Versperbild, as they were commonly associated with evening prayers – the evening of Good Friday is the moment when Jesus was removed from the cross. The Pietà first crossed over into Italian art around 1400.
The Pietà coincided with a period where Christian devotional practise across Europe was beginning to move into the domestic environment, prompting the creation of small, portable works of art to aid reflection and devotion. These included richly illustrated copies Books of Hours, Triptychs that acted as private altarpieces and smaller, coloured carvings in wood and alabaster.
Early Pietàs often made Christ’s body much smaller than the Virgin Mary’s, signifying the idea of the mother holding her dead child in her arms. His wounds were also very prominent in such works, to reinforce the suffering he endured on the cross. Variations on the image of the Pietà include those where the Virgins arms are stretched out towards the viewer (an attribute that is common to Spanish versions of the subject) or where Christ is laid at her feet, with her arms clasped in prayer, such as the version painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in about 1512 (Museo Civico, Viterbo).
The most famous version of the Pietà is the marble sculpture created by Michelangelo around 1497 — 1500 for Cardinal de Lagraulas; which is now in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This life-sized work marked a rapid departure from the traditional depictions of the aged Madonna, struck down with grief; instead, showing her as youthful. By depicting her in this way, Michelangelo aimed to reinforce her purity and vulnerable position, reminding the viewer of her role as the mother of Christ in a more subtle manner than previous approaches. Christ’s wounds from the crucifixion are also more subtle, and the faces appear peaceful – making the work a symbol of Christ’s future resurrection and the renewal of the link between man and God through his sacrifice.
The Pietà in Modern Art
The Pietà has continued to be referenced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by artists. Examples include Vincent Van Gogh’s Pietà (Van Gogh Museum), a variation based on a lithograph by Eugene Delacroix and Max Ernst’s Revolution by Night (Tate), which replaces the figures of Christ and the Virgin with Ernst and his father; a work which rose out of their troubled relationship. In 2001, the film-maker and photographer Sam Taylor-Wood produced a short film where she acts as the Virgin holding the body of Christ (played by Robert Downey Junior). In this work, the viewer can see the apparent physical struggle of the “mother”, attempting to cradle the weight of her adult son’s body, alongside the inner battle of grief.
The British artist Jenny Saville has explored the theme of the Pietà, collecting photographs of conflicts over a twenty year period which include children being carried from war zones in Pietà-like poses. In 2018 she created Aleppo at the Scottish National Gallery, the first artwork inspired by the subject she had released, in response to the horrors of war in Syria.
When Aleppo was exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery, she reflected on her experience making the work:
…whether they're Iraq, Syria - maybe the colour of skin and the physiology changes a little bit, but the basic impulse is the same and we do this again and again as humans. We just blow buildings up, we kill each other, we have children that are dying in our arms and you think, gosh, we just repeat this cyclic pattern. And I've got two children, so trying to imagine what that would be like and it was actually very difficult making the work. I had to divorce myself from the feelings that I had about if they were my children because that's quite painful to imagine, but I knew it was very powerful and I wanted to do it.
- Jenny Saville, reflecting on the creation of Aleppo