Peter Breuer, Pietà, limewood, Germany, c. 1490. Jacksonville, FL, The Cummer Museum of Art, AP.1982.1.1.

by Andrea Georgiou

Figure 1. Michelangelo,  Pietà, 1499

Figure 1. Michelangelo, Pietà, 1499

Figure 2. Anonymous, Alabaster Pietà, French, First half of 15th Century

Figure 2. Anonymous, Alabaster Pietà, French, First half of 15th Century

Figure 3. Anonymous, Lamentation of Christ, 1480, Bodemuseum

Figure 3. Anonymous, Lamentation of Christ, 1480, Bodemuseum

The limewood Pietà by Peter Breuer belonging to the Cummer Museum produced in Germany in the year 1490 focuses the viewer’s attention on Mary and her grief over the death of her son, Jesus Christ.

Mary is portrayed as the central focus point of this piece. The sculpture exhibits a triangular or pyramidal composition that places Mary’s head at the top. She is depicted with a frown overtaking her face and is caught in a moment of reflection as she stares off just over the head of Christ. Her voluminous robe secludes the lifeless body of Christ, who lies stiffly at an angle descending from left to right across Mary’s lap. Her right arm supports Christ’s head, her hand gently cupping his neck and shoulders. With her left arm, Mary raises the left arm of Christ. Her hand is at his elbow and his arm is seen as heavy and lifeless as it drapes over hers.

The Cummer Pietà, with its depiction of Mary cradling the body of her son, recalls darkly by analogy the image of Mary holding the infant Christ. With mixed awe, love, and grief, the mother contemplates a son who, born to die as a sacrifice, has fulfilled his destiny. Even the body of Christ, enshrouded in Mary’s drapery, recalls the swaddled body of the infant. Perhaps one of the most widely known images of the Pietà is the one made by Michelangelo (Fig. 1), in 1499 for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.[1] The Michelangelo Pietà depicts Mary bolstering the lifeless body of Christ upon her lap with her right arm clasping the body close to hers. The countenance of Mary is depicted in a sense of acceptance. Here too Mary is the central focus point with her head at the apex of the triangle looking down in a state of prayer.

This sculpture focuses our attention on Mary’s attitude and response to Christ’s death, which is most powerfully expressed through the positions and expressions of the figures. Many of the works assembled for the Art of Empathy exhibition aim to immerse the viewer in the physical and emotional suffering of Christ and the Virgin Mary, to help the viewer to experience the Virgin’s emotional agony as if it were one’s own, for instance. Among the many religious subjects that serve this expressive purpose, the Pietà is one of the most common and important.[2]

Typically, the Pietà focuses the viewer’s attention strongly on Mary. A fifteenth century French alabaster Pietà (Fig. 2), for instance makes Mary’s importance clear by depicting her almost three times larger than the diminutive figure of Christ, which makes her the center point of the piece and again recalls by its scale the image Mary holding the infant Christ. She is seen sitting with the lifeless body of Christ draped over her knees. Her face is depicted with her eyes shut, and her wrinkled brow and pinched expression portray her in the midst of weeping.

The Pietà depicts a scene that was not described in the Bible.[3] It reflects our human imagination of the events of Christ’s death, rather than a scriptural or historical account. Medieval and Renaissance Christian art often depict responses to this tragedy that were not described in the Bible but that must have occurred, or so imagination insists. Mary must have wept, perhaps fainted from distress. Christ’s disciples and followers must have cried and mourned. In visualizing a human response to the death of Christ, the Pietà is related to other subjects in late Medieval art, including images of the Raising of the Cross, the Descent from the Cross, the Entombment, and in particular the Lamentation.[4] This scene depicts Christ having been removed from the cross, lying in Mary’s lap, surrounded by other mourners. A late fifteenth century German Lamentation sculpture executed in painted limewood (Fig.3), for instance, appears like a Pietà with additional figures. Mary is in the bottom middle of this image, cradling the dead body of Christ on her lap. The Pietà has a more intimate feel due to the subtraction of these additional mourning figures. This gives the viewer a direct connection with Mary and aids in the detail of her emotion.

Mary is an emotionally accessible figure chosen to be shown to the public as a means to help people understand the Passion. Mary becomes a devotional figure through this process. Many religious works are made for devotional purposes in order to inspire religious reflection in the viewer. There are many ways to depict the sorrows Mary felt at the death of her son.[5] Mary is seen going through the same grieving process any mother today would go through. Facial expression of emotions is among the most universal forms of communication. Mary lived on this earth over two thousand years ago, and the vivid realism of her expression in these images bring her back to life for contemporary viewers. The Cummer Pietà is a sculpture that has paved the way through emotional expression for empathy and understanding.

[1] Joanna E. Ziegler, “Michelangelo and the Medieval Pietà: The Sculpture of Devotion or the Art of Sculpture?” Gesta Vol. 34, No. 1 (1995): 28-36.

[2] William H. Forsyth, “Medieval Statues of the Pietà in the Museum,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 7 (1953): 177-184.

[3] The Holy Bible.

[4] Parshall, Peter. “The Art of Memory and the Passion.” The Art Bulletin 81, no. 3 (1999): 56-472.

[5] Carol M. Schuler, “The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin: Popular Culture and Cultic Imagery in Pre-Reformation Europe,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art , Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (1992): 5-28.

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