An iconographic theme representing the Virgin (alone or with John and Mary Magdalen) grieving over the body of Christ on her knees. Late medieval religious spirit, preoccupied with pain and suffering, found its most pathetic expression in the Pietà, a devotional image of the compassion of Mary in the time between deposition and entombment.
Literary sources of the theme are Pseudo-Bonaventure's Meditations, St. Bridget's Revelations, and the sermons and poetry of the mystics, but its ultimate origin is a fusion of the Virgin's lamentation with either the entombment (Duccio, Maestà) or the deposition (Giotto, Arena Chapel) of Christ. The isolated, emotionally charged mother-son group in sculptural form is a specifically German achievement of c. 1300, most frequently and variously produced in Rhenish and Swabian centers.
The Pietà, is a synthesis of the Madonna enthroned with the slaughtered Innocents' mourning mothers. Three main types are distinguishable: Christ in a sitting position, His head and knees angularly bent—the earliest German manifestation; Christ in a horizontal position across the Virgin's lap (from the lamentation)—preferred in Italy; and Christ in a sloping position in an unbroken curve (from the deposition)—favored in France.
The small, sculptured Pietà in the Landeamuseum, Bonn, datable c. 1320, poignantly expresses human suffering and sorrow through the angularity of Christ's broken body and the Virgin's disproportionately large head. The great anonymous Pietà of Villeneuveles-Avignon, painted c. 1460, is moving in its noble constraint. With eyes cast down on Christ's rigid body, Mary prays, joined by John and the donor—her mute anguish intensified by the openly weeping Magdalen. Simple composition, subdued colors, and archaic gold-ground accentuate the concept of restraint. In 15th-century Italy the horizontal (entombment) type, with surrounding saints, prevailed (Crivelli, Tura, Perugino, Sellaio). In his earliest of four sculptured Pietàs (Rome, St. Peter's, 1498), Michelangelo replaced the horizontal form with a northern composite—creating through the monumental pyramid a transformation from agony to solemnity and heroic resignation. Although the theme continued intermittently (Carracci, Rubens, Guenther), not until the 20th century, e.g., Zadkine's small bronze Pietà (1952), has the original emotional impact been restored.
Bibliography: w. pinder, Die Pietà (Leipzig 1922); "Die dichterische Wurzel der Pietà," Repertorium für Kuntswissenschaft 42 (1919–20) 145–163. w. passarge, Das deutsche Vesperbild im Mittelalter (Cologne 1924). r. hamann, "Die Bonner Pietà," Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Paul Clemen (Bonn 1926) 365–374. e. panofsky, "Imago Pietatis: Ein Beitrag zur Typengeschichte des Schmerzensmannes und der Maria Mediatrix," Festschrift für Max J. Friedländer zum 60. Geburstage (Leipzig 1927) 261–308. f. c. schneider, Die mittelalterlichen deutschen Typen und Vorformen des Vesperbildes (Rendsburg 1931). É. mÂle, L'Art religieux de la fin du moyen âge en France (5th ed. Paris 1949). w. koerte, "Deutsche Vesperbilder in Italien," Kunstgeschichtliches Jahrbuch der Bibliotheca Hertziana 1 (1937) 1–138, w. h. forsyth, "Medieval Statues of the Pietà in the Museum," Bulletin of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art NS 11 (1952–53) 177–184.
pie·tà / ˌpēāˈtä/ (often Pie·tà) • n. a picture or sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ on her lap or in her arms.