The Avignon Pieta by Enguerrand Quarton
Interpretation of French Religious Painting of the Lamentation of Christ

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The Avignon Pieta
By Enguerrand Quarton.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Avignon Pieta (c.1454-6)


Interpretation of Other mid-15th-Century Paintings


Name: "The Avignon Pieta" (also called the Pieta of Villeneuve-les-Avignon)
Date: 1454-6
Artist: Enguerrand Quarton (1410-66)
Medium: Tempera on panel
Genre: Religious art
Movement: School of French Painting
Location: Louvre, Paris.

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of works by
French Provencal painters
like Quarton/Charenton, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of the Avignon Pieta by Enguerrand Quarton

The Avignon Pieta by Enguerrand Quarton is one of the most striking religious paintings of the 15th century. Although somewhat controversial because it does not clearly fit into any historical style, it expresses the modernity achieved by certain progressive French (and Flemish) painters active on the fringes of the Italian Renaissance. On the one hand it retains some of the 'flatness' of Byzantine art, while offering a freshness more in tune with Renaissance art than Gothic painting. (Compare: The Wilton Diptych 1399.)

This masterpiece of Biblical art (featuring the Lamentation of Christ) from the Provence School, long anonymous or vaguely ascribed to a "Master of the Pieta at Villeneuve-les-Avignon", is now credited to Enguerrand Quarton, also known as Charenton. Quarton also created another work that is nearly as famous: Coronation of the Virgin, painted in 1453-54 for the altar of the Holy Trinity in the church of the Carthusians at Villeneuve-les-Avignon.

Over recent years, a relatively precise outline of the painter's biography has emerged. He left his native north some time between 1435 and 1440 and moved to the south of France, where he eventually settled. In 1444, he is referred to as dwelling in Aix-en-Provence. He rented a house in Avignon in 1447. From that time he was recorded, year after year, as "living in Avignon" or as a "painter from Avignon."

On April 24,1453, a "fixed price" was arrived at for the Coronation of the Virgin, which was destined for the church of the Carthusian monastery at Villeneuve-les-Avignon. There is no mention of the Pieta. This particular panel painting was shown at the Louvre in 1904 on the occasion of an exhibition of "primitive French masters," where it was "discovered." And before that? It seems that until the Revolution it had been in the Carthusian monastery at Villeneuve-les-Avignon.

NOTE: For details of his closest contemporary, see: Jean Fouquet (1420-81), creator of the celebrated Melun Diptych (1450-55, Koninklijk Museum; Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin) as well as the Portrait of Charles VII of France (1445-50, Louvre, Paris).

The Avignon Pieta is - in the sculptural roughness of its forms, and in the intense expression of the faces - both one of the most characteristic and one of the most striking examples of medieval painting from fifteenth-century Provence. It is a work out of time, beyond style, transcending everything, which manages to transform its realistic elements into symbols of austere grandeur. Simultaneously rustic and erudite, sober and monumental, it has preserved much of its mystery. Who is the donor kneeling on the left, with gnarled hands and jutting-out veins? What is that city in the distance, whose slim minarets stand out against the gold-coloured ground? A Jerusalem that is at once earthly and heavenly? The spare harshness of the painting is nonetheless overpowering.

At its heart the artist has placed the simple yet sublime mystery of the death of the Son of Man and the Lamentation as never before. Perhaps he can only be compared to the Christ in the magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) by Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528), who is endowed with the same roughness, though the emphasis is quite different.



Extremely sober, the Avignon Pieta with its penetrating, abrasive angles, is organized around the tortured, broken body of Christ, which lies horizontally over the knees of his Mother. There are four figures (plus one other: the donor) in this theatre of pain that celebrates misfortune as a promise of redemption - four characters in a mystery play of death and resurrection: the ashen corpse drawing in Saint John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalen on the right, who both lean in towards him, and the upright figure of the deathly pale Virgin Mary, hands raised in prayer, who bisects the composition with a contrary momentum that thrusts it upwards. The figure of John the Baptist removing the crown of thorns from Christ's head is without precedent in medieval art up to and including the 15th century. The work perfectly represents Quarton's style, being characterized by sure lines, a balance of expressive and ornamental effects, and a splitting of forms into facet-like elements. (Note: Following the example of Flemish painters such as Robert Campin, Jan Van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden, the donor is not depicted as an archaic figurine but on the same scale as the Holy figures.)

This incomparable altarpiece appears more primitive than it truly is. Incomparable in its terrible expressiveness which, rooted in commonplace reality, attains the most elevated spirituality.

Other major works by Quarton include: Madonna of the Protective Mantle (1452, Musee Condee, Chantilly) and the Coronation of the Virgin (1453-4, Musee de l'Hospice, Villeneuve-les-Avignon).

Interpretation of Other mid-15th-Century Paintings

For analysis of other paintings of the 15th century, see the following articles:

Battle of San Romano (1438-55) National Gallery London; Uffizi/Louvre.
By Paolo Uccello.

Descent From the Cross (Deposition) (1435-40) Prado, Madrid
By Roger van der Weyden.

The Annunciation (c.1450) San Marco Museum, Florence.
By Fra Angelico.

Flagellation of Christ (1450-60) Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.
By Piero Della Francesca.


• For the meaning/interpretation of other 15th century French paintings, see: Homepage.

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