Image of Virgin Mary Holding Dead Christ.

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Pieta (1500) St Peter's Rome.
The world's most famous "pieta".
Sculpted by Michelangelo at
the age of 25.



What is a Pieta?
Famous Pietas
Michelangelo's Pieta

Pieta (c.1560)
By Luis de Morales (El Devino)
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.

Pieta (1600)
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte,
Naples. By Annibale Carracci.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For chronology, see:
History of Art Timeline.

What is a Pieta?

In Christian art, "pieta" - the Italian for "pity" or "mercy" - is a depiction of the dead Christ following the descent from the cross, accompanied either by a sorrowful Virgin/Madonna (sometimes with Saint John), or angels. The image may be a sculpture - most often a marble sculpture or a wood carving - or a painting. The most famous Pieta is the sculpture by Michelangelo, which can be seen in St Peter's Basilica, Rome.

The Pieta is not unlike the Lamentation of Christ, taken from the Passion, except it is more reflective, and its most common form is one consisting only of the dead Jesus lying on the lap of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, if Christ and the Virgin are surrounded by too many figures, the work can lose its meditative character, and become a Lamentation. Another important difference between a Pieta and a Lamentation, is that while the latter represents a particular biblical scene from Christ's Passion, the former is a timeless image.

The Pieta is one of several representations used in Biblical art to depict a grieving Virgin Mary (the Mater Dolorosa). Another comes from the Stations of the Cross, when the weeping mother meets her son Jesus on the way to his Crucifixion at Calvary. The second is the Stabat Mater (here stands the mother), depicting the Madonna standing beneath the cross, an image often used as part of a large church-crucifix or rood. The intensity of the imagery can vary considerably. Wood-carved Pietas in German Gothic art often emphasise Christ's wounds, and/or the Virgin's grief. However, once the grief becomes too obvious, the work loses its reflective character, and becomes a Lamentation.

History of the Pieta

The Pieta appears to have originated in Germany (where it is known as the Vesperbild) during the mid to late 13th century era of Gothic art (although equally early examples have been found in Spain and in Orthodox churches in Russia). Thereafter it spread to Italy in time for the Early Renaissance (c.1400-90), although it was not in widespread use as a form of religious art: witness an entry from the diary of Landucci, a writer, which describes a painting as being of "a seated Madonna, holding the dead Christ in her arms, following the descent from the cross, which some are calling a Pieta." Also, the French Cardinal who commissioned the St Peter's version from Michelangelo, was so unfamiliar with the subject that he insisted on describing the pose required, in the contract.

Famous Pietas

• Rottgen Pieta (1300) Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, by unknown carver.
• Christ on the Virgin's Knees (c.1350) Munich, by unknown sculptor.
• Pieta in limestone (1400) The Cloisters New York, by unknown sculptor.
• Dead Christ Attended by Angels (1443) Victoria & Albert, by Donatello.
• Pieta (1500) St Peter's Basilica, by Michelangelo.
• Pieta (1500-20) Eglise Saint-Martin, Bayel, by the Master of Chaource.

• Pieta with God the Father (1400-1410) Louvre, by Jean Malouel.
• The Avignon Pieta (c.1454-6) Louvre, by Enguerrand Quarton.
• Pieta with Saint John and donor (1435) Prado, by Roger van der Weyden.
• Christ Upheld by Angels (1460) Staatsgalerie Berlin, by Giovanni Bellini.
• Christ Upheld by the Virgin & St John (1468) Brera Milan, by Giovanni Bellini.
• Pieta (1490) Uffizi Gallery, by Perugino.
• Pieta (c.1560) Prado, by Luis de Morales.
• Pieta (c.1570) Accademia Venice, by Titian.
• Pieta (1571-6) Philadelphia Museum of Art, by El Greco.
• Pieta (1600) Capodimonte Museum Naples, by Annibale Carracci.
• Pieta (1876) Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Michelangelo's Pieta (1500)

A masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture carved in Carrara marble by Michelangelo (1475-1564), it is located in St. Peter's in the Vatican. Commissioned by the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, the work was sculpted as a monument for the cardinal's funeral, but was transferred to its current location in the 18th century. Featuring the body of Jesus being cradled on the lap of his mother Mary after being taken down from the cross, it carefully balances the Renaissance aethetics of beauty and naturalism. Michelangelo's interpretation is noticeably different to those of earlier artists. To begin with, the Virgin is much younger-looking than usual, an appearance Michelangelo created for two reasons: first, God is the source of all beauty and the Virgin is one of the closest to him; second, because her outward beauty is indicative of her inner purity. Another unusual feature is the meditative repose of the Virgin, which contrasts with the more usual grief-stricken figure. They key lies in her outstretched hand which shows an acceptance of her fate. Michelangelo's meticulous depiction of Christ's anatomy is dazzling: he even shows the distended nature of the veins in Christ's right arm, indicating how recently the blood flowed in his body.

For other Christian artworks created for ecclesistical use or personal devotion, see: Diptych (2-panel painting), Triptych (3-panel altarpiece painting or carving) and the large scale polyptych (multi-panel work) used for high altars.


• For more about Christian painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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