The Pietá: Universal and Renewable Symbol of Shared Humanity

Richard Friswell
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New York Times photographer Samuel Aranda was announced winner of the iconic World Press photo competition on Friday. The 55th annual jury of the World Press photo contest selected Aranda’s photograph of a woman consoling an injured male relative in Yemen as 2011’s Photo of the Year. The woman is hidden almost entirely by her burqa, with the exception of small parts of her face and arms that escape from beneath her robes. Aranda captured the image in a Sanaa mosque used as a hospital by demonstrators protesting Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Times’ Lens blog described the winning photograph (above) as having the “feel of a Renaissance painting.” Mr. Aranda told The Times that it was one of his first ”shots” during his two months’ assignment in Yemen. “The woman is not just crying. It was something more. You can feel that the woman is really strong,” Aranda said of the female subject in his photograph [via Huffington Post].artes fine arts magazine

History of a Motif

The evocative image of a desperately-determined-but-tender mother holding her adult child, as if to stem the flow of life-force escaping him, strikes a universal chord for observers. In spite of cultural preconceptions or cultural biases one may harbor as a result of tragedies emanating from the Middle East, this powerful piece cuts through all of that—underscoring a common humanity. But, one’s sense of history—particularly art history— also references this photo’s ‘Renaissance feel’, emphatically striking a resonant chord.

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Unknown arist, Pieta (c. 1375-1400), Rhine Valley, poplar, plaster, paint, gilt. Coll: Met, NY

Long before historical accounts of the cultural ‘rebirth’ known as the Renaissance, images of the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ reflected late medieval developments in mysticism, encouraging direct emotional involvement in biblical tradition. Inspired and created as an object for private devotion, this classic pairing of mother and son (right) is a rudimentary, but strikingly pure, expression of the Schöne Stil, or Beautiful Style, an idiom emerging from the imperial court of Prague, late in the fourteenth century. Originating during the critical years of that city’s ascent as a prosperous, influential Czech urban center—and the eventual seat of the Holy Roman Empire (1355)—the iconic motifs were to resonate in artistic centers throughout Europe. In this very early example, the sculptor exploits the formal and psychological tensions inherent in the composition, combining an almost mimetic rendering of detail and selectively abstract treatment of surface. Christ’s broken, emaciated body, naked except for loincloth, offers stark contrast to the Virgin’s youthful figure, clad in abundant folds. The quality of execution is evident in such details as the minutely striated loincloth and head veil, the vital delineation of Christ’s arms, sinews and veins visible, and the interweave of three hands, entirely undercut, on the Virgin’s lap. Blending sensuality and restraint endows this sculpture with immediate emotional appeal.

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Pieta (Vesperbild), c. 1400, Bohemian, Limestone. Coll: The Cloisters, NY (2001.78)

The spread of Christianity throughout medieval Europe in the later Middle Ages, reinforced longevity to the image of the Virgin mourning her son as a popular devotional subject. In this fin de siècle example (left), from the German Rhine Valley, Christ’s body is rigid in death, bearing marks of his Passion. His small scale may reflect writings of German mystics, who believed that the Virgin, in her agonizing grief, imagined herself holding Christ as baby once again in her arms. Neither the human suffering in Mary’s tortured face, nor the reduction in scale of the Christ figure, were intended to lessen their shared sanctity. Instead, German mysticism during this period can be seen to precurse a more naturalistic, humanistic interpretation of this familiar tableau, eventually leading to the Reformist movement, and break with Catholicism, led by Martin Luther in the next century.

Following the Late Middle Ages, the universal theme of a mother’s love for her child, as portrayed in painting and sculpture, was ubiquitous. Given that Christian core tenets , in various forms, became foundational in European society, many Renaissance artists were thus inspired to portray the uber-motif of maternal devotion, incarnate, in the form of Mary and her son, Jesus. No representation of that theme, in the southern European tradition (papal orthodoxy), is better known than Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s, Pietá. Completed from a single block of Carrere marble when the sculptor was just twenty-four (1498-9), Pietá (Pity) serves as the Catholic Church’s principle iconic representation of a mother’s grief following the death of a child.

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Michelangelo, Pieta (1498). Coll: Vatican, Rome.

Much has been written about this work, but words cannot duly describe the impact of the life-sized sculpture on the viewer. The figure of Jesus lies limp on the lap of a despondent Mary, whose downcast eyes contemplate the visage of her crucified child with sorrow and disbelief. Smaller in stature than a grown man, if placed in a standing position, the figure of Christ more closely resembles a gangly teenager, stolen from his family–Mankind– before his life’s potential could be realized. Mary’s face radiates youth and innocence, belying her years and suffering. Critics have offered many explanations for this apparent anomaly. Some posit that Mary’s calm aspect may be the result of her personal conviction that her son’s full potential had, indeed, been met as  prophecized. Another, and perhaps the most cogent, being that Michelangelo wished to portray her as virginal, untouched by the grief of the world, or perhaps—in a twist of irony—herself, the supplicant child of the Son, now lifelessly draped across her flowing garb.

The artist’s choice of the title—Pity—poses interesting questions about the hermeneutics of the work. The naming of this morose, compelling scene begs the question of where the source of pity should lie: projected onto the tragic motif represented here (as in, “what a pity for them that it should end this way”); or rather, inner-directed, realizing that mere mortal viewers share collective, pitiable culpability for the death, as documented in the familiar New Testament narrative theme, (as in, “pity them as a civilization”)?

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Giovanni Bellini, Pieta (1505). Coll: Uffizi, Florence

The theme of collective guilt for the death of Christ is central to Christian teachings, and this orthodoxy—together with the Biblical notion of Original Sin—were generally embraced by Renaissance artists and artisans to produce work that would gain the attention and approval of wealthy patrons, both in and around the sphere of influence that was the powerful Holy See, in Rome. But other artists produced “pietas”, even as Michelangelo gained his reputation for liturgical sculpture and painting, with popes and prelates.  A particularly moving example of another’s work is a painting by 75-year old Venetian, Giovanni Bellini, whose Pietá was completed in 1505. Reflecting Northern European influences uncharacteristic of High Renaissance (Quattrocento) painting of the time, his pietá references the Italian landscape and prominently uses earthly symbols–a single flower growing from the rocky soil, a prematurely-stunted tree, pathways (to salvation?)–to embellish the narrative.

Bellini’s style embodied the devotional gravity of his faith as well as the worldly splendor of Venice in his time; he saw his influence propagated by a host of pupils, including Tiziano Vecelli (Titian). From a perspective of historical import, his Pietá, in particular, incorporated the discreet symbolism of the Northern Renaissance, as well as a newly-formulated, more permanent oil paint, rather than the egg tempera favored by contemporaries. This new medium opened the door to his experimental use of color and atmosphere, seen in this work. Bellini’s approach to the emotionally-charged scene of the sacrificed savior, for the supposed final time resting in his grieving mother’s arms, was to place it squarely in an earthy, pastoral setting, amid iconic Venetian sites. Due to the familiarity to most of the setting, his method didacticized the message of redemption-through-faith in a manner enabling even the most illiterate and unenlightened to understand and embrace its meaning, making it their own..

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El Greco, Pieta (1585-97). Coll: Prado, Madrid.

Another pietá followed several decades later. This one by the Spanish Renaissance painter, El Greco, “The Greek”(so nicknamed for his Greek origins) dates from 1585-97. The experimental painter broke with the traditions of his time, by incorporating stylistic influences from his varied residencies, initially as a child growing up in Crete. He trained there to become a master of that tradition– Crete was then the center of Post-Byzantine art and part of the Republic of Venice — before travelling to the city of Venice at age 26, as had other Greek artists. In 1570, he moved to Rome, opening a workshop and executing a series of works. While in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and the Venetian Renaissance (an influence defined, in part, by his predecessor, Bellini). In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and it was there that he produced his pietá.

El Greco’s dramatic, spontaneously expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries, but by the 20th century he had garnered long-awaited appreciation. He is regarded as a precursor to both Expressionism and Cubism, characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual, that he belongs to no one conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting. English art historian David Davies sees the roots of El Greco’s style in the intellectual sources of his Greco-Christian education and in his recollections of the liturgical and ceremonial aspects of the Orthodox Church. Davies believes that the religious climate of the Counter-Reformation and the aesthetics of mannerism acted as catalysts to activate his unique technique.

Given the artist’s signature style, Greco’s pietá is no exception. Haunting and atmospheric–the figure of Christ recently removed from the cross (which appears as a detail in the background)–Mary’s grievous labor is shared with two others, likely, Peter and Mary Magdalene, as they lower Jesus to the ground. Gaunt and lifelessly-blue in death, the central figure nonetheless conveys human qualities of grace, dignity and muscularity, easily conjuring the image of Christ among us, a mortal soul. The enveloping drama unfolds lovingly, evidenced in signs of personal compassion and tenderness of those attending the body, and in the ceremony for the remains, steeped and rich in the Hebrew tradition. Time is frozen in this moment of despondency, even as dark storm clouds tumble by in the distance. The crown of thorns lies discarded, only partially visible, suggesting that Christ’s pre-destined persecution and suffering has finally been fulfilled.

A Redefined View of Pietá: Pathos

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Jean Auguste Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer (1827). Neo-Classicism reigns supreme in Europe. Coll: Louvre

And just as El Greco’s work may be termed more ‘modern’ by visionary artistic standards, so too, should our understanding of the term ‘pietá,’ or pity, be re-examined in the context of a more dynamic relationship between early Modern Era man and his God. By late 16th century, the more progressive elements of Europe’s intellectual community were being influenced by scientific discovery and philosophical discourse. The notion of ‘pity,’ or helplessness, in their examination of man’s relationship to the Almighty and to the physical universe, as a whole, was being reconfigured. What accompanied this enlightened thinking was a transformative belief in the individuals power to make choices impacting his own destiny. That is, the empowerment to earn grace in the eyes of God through good works and individual prayerful devotion, was being codified as a legitimate route to heaven. The animating rationale for this tectonic shift in the role of individuals to determine their own fate was due, in large part, to the Rights of Man movement accompanying the American and French revolutions; and the weakening grip of divine rights of kings to control national policy throughout the Western world. In the 18th century, science and reason, urbanization and technology began trumping medieval caste systems and superstition, blind faith and rural isolation, as guiding principles of daily life. Laws of Nature, with man a helpless cog in a vast cosmology controlled by an omniscient God, were slowly being replaced by Laws of Man, where enabling issues like life, liberty and happiness, to the astonishment of many granted traditional roles of power, now rested in the hands of the individual. Western Europeans, especially in the northern tier, moved from passive to active engagement, in defining the articles of their faith.

For guidance through this transition, the Enlightenment’s intellectuals turned to classical teachings of the Greeks and Romans. Neo-classical revivalism touched every aspect of early modern life, from literature, arts and architecture, to astrophysics and women’s fashion. From this mix of ancient wisdom came revitalized purpose offering ‘modern’ thinkers the foundational model for objective inquiry and teachings of ancient philosophy were grafted onto newly-created models of scientific and cultural inquiry. Among the most revered classicists was Aristotle (right).

Relevant among his many postulates, for purposes of this essay, are Aristotle’s three primary rhetorical modes of persuasion: ethos, logos and pathos. Dealing principally with lines of literary and spoken argument, the third, pathos, can figure effectively into our understanding of the artist’s visual tropes for eliciting emotional response from the viewer. The adoption of this ancient rhetorical principle helps define the essential shift from pieta to pathos, as we consider the artistic portrayal of human compassion in the face of tragedy and loss, in a post-Enlightenment world. At its core, understanding this critical re-alignment rests more on understanding the historical shifts to an empowered ‘modern’ psyche, than to the particular ability of any artist to create a powerful emotional motif.

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Albrecht Durer, Melancholia I (1514), wood cut, period book illustration.

Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric, literature and film. But, to the extent that we are considering the narrative force of selected examples of visual art, it can apply to this discussion, as well. Emotional appeal is achieved in the ‘pietas’ under consideration thus far, accomplished by employing a metaphorical image that tells a story (here: Christ’s death on the cross). In this case, Aristotle would argue, the achievement of passion in the work’s creation and the artist’s measure of success at conveying this, by arousing a sympathetic response, can only then be determined by the audience. The power to evoke pathos, which may or may not be inherent in a work of art, is, in the final analysis determined by the viewer, alone.

Pathos is often associated with emotion, but it is more complex a response than simply emotions. An equivalent might better be described as an appeal to the audience’s sympathies and imagination. An appeal to pathos causes an audience not to only respond emotionally, but to identify with the artist’s point-of-view— to feel what the artist feels. So, when used in tragedy, pathos evokes a meaning implicit in the verb ‘to suffer or to endure’ – to feel pain imaginatively or vicariously. Pathos is often employed with tragic themes, which is why it often carries negative emotional connotations. For the artist, the most common way of conveying a pathetic appeal is through a visual narrative, turning the abstractions of story-telling palpable and present. The values, beliefs, and understandings of the artist are almost certainly implicit in the work, conveyed to the viewer through a range of symbols and gestures. Pathos, thus, refers to both the emotional and the imaginative impact of the visual message on an audience, and the lyrical power of that image to propel the viewer to an emotional nexus with the work.

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Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805).

Among the works of Friedrich von Schiller, “Sublime Pathos” (German, das Pathetisch-Erhabene) appears as a privileged aesthetic concept. According to Schiller, sublime pathos in the context of art, demonstrates human freedom and triumph in the struggle against suffering. As such, pathos no longer refers to suffering itself, but rather, an effect produced by overcoming that suffering. Generally, Schiller links the experience of suffering to “grand ideas” – such as the idea of freedom. Schiller’s description of pathos continues to influence the use of the word today, in that the triumphant overcoming of suffering and other negative situations, is seen as representing pathos.

An examination of this shift away from the Renaissance view of pietá (‘pity’)—and its connotations of helpless witness and implied collective guilt—to its affective counterpart, pathos, was a ‘grand idea’, strongly associated with human freedom accomplished, and willed dominance over suffering. Thus, the transition from pietá-to-pathos follows the arc of modernist thinking and impulse. Now, consider some contemporary examples of pathos in art, understanding its strong exegetic link to the time-honored notion of pietá.

Pathos in a Contemporary Context

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henri Cartier-Bresson, Homecoming (1946), New York City Series. Private Collection.

In centuries past, Shiller’s ‘sublime pathos’ was a struggle played out on the mythic, theological fields of battle, as popes and kings strived to capture the imagination and art has shifted to themes of national ambition and political ideology. In a reflexive gesture, art and artists have endeavored to hold up a mirror on these bloody conflicts and schisms in the hopes of evoking the same visceral response that Michelangelo, Bellini or El Greco worked to achieve. But, in today’s post-modern world, that same powerful messaging can be accomplished with the trip of a shutter, rather than endless months or years of labor in a studio. The pace of our lives is reflected in the speed with which these digital images are captured, codified, iconicized and distributed globally.

The message in this Henri Cartier-Bresson1946 photograph is unclear at first. Is it the scene of a great tragedy that has attracted large crowds? Or is it a conflict between two people, caught in a moment of heated engagement? The title of the image and the photographer’s note accompanying it, in fact, clarify the ambiguity. Called Homecoming, it captures the instant when a mother and son fall into an emotional, heart-felt embrace, as he disembarks from a ship at a New York City pier, just home from the war. The intensity of the moment is made even more powerful when we realize that the anxious crowds surrounding the pair are oblivious of the private drama, as they excitedly focus on sighting their own loved ones. This image is a celebration of life with all of the same poignancy and pathos of the ‘pietas’ of centuries past. For Aristotle, the effectiveness of the rhetorical technique rests with the viewer; and for pure emotional impact—especially given the celebration of survival and reunion pictured here—it is pathos in its most highly-conceived state.

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Dickey Chapelle, Chu Lai, Viet Nam (1965), silver print. Private Collection

This combat photograph, taken by Dickey Chapelle (1965) at Chu Lai, was taken during the first major enemy engagement of the Viet Nam War. Deep in the jungle, American Marines, still inexperienced in jungle warfare, struggle to survive. This image depicts a wounded combat medic providing care and comfort to a fellow Marine in extreme conditions, and captures both the gritty, sweat-soaked drama of the immediate event, while registering a palpable sense of panic that accompanies the chaos of warfare. Like the pietás of centuries before, this image conveys all of the compassion and helplessness that occur when a life, perhaps slipping quickly away, is cradled in one’s hands. Rather than pity, though, the viewer is asked to mobilize emotions and sense the immediacy and rush of adrenalin that the medic must be experiencing. In the words of Fredrick von Shiller, we are to be emboldened by this vignette portraying “triumph in the struggle against suffering.” There is no way to know how this story ends, but the age-old narrative of young life sacrificed in the name of a greater good is as resoundingly true today as it was for the Old Masters, who also searched for compelling means to express the same burning issues of their time.

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Samuel Aranda, Untitled (2011). 2011 Winner, World Press photo contest.

Scenes of war are revisited in the 2011 image by Samuel Aranda that began this essay. Here, combat is not pictured, but implied. The touching scene occurs in a mosque turned make-shift hospital near a battle front. As World War II was the first widely photographed war, and Viet Nam the first televised, by now, we are saturated and de-sensitized by images of death and destruction. News feeds of ethnic conflicts, urban conflagration, rebel uprisings, tribal cleansings and struggles over despotic legacies, brought to light by the ‘Arab Spring,’ are all too real and have become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. The inherent power of this image lies in the story that is not shown—the chain of events and horrors of war that brought this fragile man to the hospital, into the arms of his mother. The scars of that war are not apparent on his skin, but rather, in the trembling and desperate soul clinging to his mother’s robes. This image achieves emotional impact, not because it elicits pietá, but serves as an iconic reminder of the common bonds of humanity that Aristotle’s pathos was intended to elicit from us all.

By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor

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