A few years ago a correspondent accused me of injecting my Christian beliefs and sensibilities into my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love”. Any interpretation of the two women in the famous painting that sees them as Mary Magdalen must be rejected out of hand since the Renaissance is all about the revival of pagan antiquity.
I admit that I am a Roman Catholic but I have argued elsewhere in this blog that it is my argument that counts, not my religion. I did not paint the “Sacred and Profane Love”, nor for that matter did I paint Giorgione’s “Tempest”. I have only interpreted both paintings as having sacred or religious subjects. It is the religion of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Venetians that matters.
One example of contemporary Venetian belief can be seen in Giovanni Bellini’s famous depiction of a “Pieta” or “Our Lady of Pity.”
In “The Stripping of the Altars”, a groundbreaking and exhaustive study of religious practice and belief in pre-Reformation England, Eamon Duffy noted the widespread devotion to the “Pieta.” *
But the most distinctive manifestation of Marian piety in late medieval England was not devotion to the Joys, but rather to the Sorrows of Mary. This was of course a European rather than a merely English phenomenon, and was yet another aspect of the devotion to the Passion… As it developed in the later Middle Ages the cult of the Sorrows of the Virgin, or the Mater Dolorosa, had a variety of functions, high among them that of serving as an objective correlative for the discharge of grief and suffering in the face of successive waves of plague sweeping through Christendom…. But the essence of the devotion was that evident in what is arguably its noblest expression, the ‘Stabat Mater’. Here the Virgin’s grief is presented, not as an end in itself, but as a means of arousing and focusing sympathetic suffering in the heart of the onlooker. In this literal compassion, this identification with the sufferings of Christ by sharing the grief of his Mother, lay salvation. (258-9)
Here is Duffy’s English translation of the Stabat Mater.
Come then Mother, the fount of love, make me feel the force of your grief, make me mourn with you. Make me weep lovingly with you, make me feel the pains of the crucified, as long as I shall live. I long to stand with you by the Cross, and to be your companion in your lamentation. Grant that I may carry within me the death of Christ, make me a partner in his Passion, let me relive his wounds.
For Duffy the “quest for a share in the sufferings of Christ, through identification with Mary, dominated the piety of Christian Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries… Mary was a natural focus for the attempt to realize for oneself the sufferings of Jesus, for she had stood by the cross, supported by John the beloved disciple when the rest of the Apostles had fled….” (260)
Every parish church contained an image of this Mater Dolorosa, for all were dominated by the Rood across the chancel arch, invariable flanked by the mourning figures of Mary and the Beloved disciple. Other images, however, proliferated to sharpen the point. Of these the most widespread was the Pieta, or image of Our Lady of Pity. Images of Our Lady of Pity exercised a growing attraction throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lay people in increasing numbers left money in their wills to maintain lights before them, and sought burial near them. (261)
Most of these images have been lost. Many were destroyed during the Reformation. Many could be ugly, even gruesome. But the greatest artists could turn this scene of sorrow into an image of great beauty and meaning. Here is Giles Robertson’s description of Bellini’s “Pieta”. **
To praise or even to attempt to describe the beauty of this picture seems an impertinence.… There is no overemphasis on the drama of grief here, but a deeply restrained rendering of the beauty of sorrow that makes this one of the great classic achievements of European art. The colour is muted: a blue so dark as to be nearly black for the mantle of the Virgin and the robe of St. John, a pale purplish pink for the Virgin’s robe, and a light blue for St. John’s mantle, while a touch of warmer colour is given by his auburn hair. The main emphasis of the lines of the figure group is starkly vertical and contrasts with the simple horizontal lines of the sarcophagus, the ends of which are not seen, and with the striations of cloud in the sky. (54) There is a perfect balance here between means and intention. Giovanni has developed the traditional tempera technique, which he inherited from his predecessors in Venice, to the fullest possible extent. We may suppose that Giovanni himself recognized this work as a special achievement, for instead of the usual signature just giving his name he added in beautiful classical lettering on a cartellino on the front of the sarcophagus a Latin couplet: HAEC FERE QVVM GEMITVS TVRGENTIA LVUMINA FROMANT BELLINI POTERAT FLERE IOANNIS OPVS “When these swelling eyes evoke groans this (very) work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears.”
Of course, the most famous Pieta is Michelangelo’s work now in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It is very likely that it was originally intended to be placed on a slab atop the grave of the French Cardinal who commissioned it. The genius of Bellini and Michelangelo was so great that you don’t have to be a Christian to be moved by their work. But it is impossible to say that Christianity did not inspire the work of these and other great Renaissance masters.
Note: The above article was originally posted on Giorgione et al… on March 31, 2012. For some reason, not fully understood by me, it has become by far the site’s most popular post.
*Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580. Yale, 1992.
**Robertson, Giles: Giovanni Bellini, Oxford, 1968.
Link to Frank’s original article here.back