Guest post by Pat Knepley
Pieta (pronounced Pee-yeh-ta) is the word for the theme in Christian art of the mourning Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of her son, the crucified Jesus. One of the most important themes in Christian Art, the pieta is usually a sculpture in wood or stone, but sometimes is a painting. All through the ages, this theme of the mourning mother of God has evoked powerful emotions.
The Pieta (Italian for pity) was an idea in art that came about in Germany in the 1300s and was called Vesperbild. In other European countries, it was known by the Latin term Mater Dolorosa, or Sorrowful Mother. The Lamentation of Christ – the portrayal of those close to Jesus mourning Him after his body was taken down from the cross – had been a part of religious rites in the church for quite some time, but specifically the idea of Mary as the mourning mother had only reached Italy in 1400, and soon became a staple of religious art.
The Röttgen Pietà, an early fourteenth-century sculpture is made of painted wood, with an elongated figure of Christ, with an oversized head and exaggerated wounds. The grief-stricken mother is also portrayed in an abstracted fashion, and these unrealistic elements serve to elicit a sense of angst and pity for the tragic scene.
As religious icons moved across Europe, the theme of the pieta reached artists of other countries. In France, we find the painting of the mournful virgin, known as the Pieta des Villeneuve-les-Avignon, believed to be painted by the French artist Enguerrand Quarton. This oil paint on wood masterpiece of the late Middle Ages is notable for its restraint in showing the grieving mother, as her hands are in prayer rather than clutching her son’s body. The other figures are still and solemn in their sorrow.
Many artists have created their own version of the pieta. Do you know who created the most famous pieta of all? Check back next week to find out.
Here is a discussion about the Rottgen Pieta.