Pietà, ca. 1515-1525
45.7 x 38.1 x 13.2 cm (18 x 15 x 5 3/16 inches)
Museum Works of Art Fund 59.128
(December 16, 2016 – July 2, 2017)
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and CollectionsA Handbook of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Edited ByWoodward, Carla M., and Franklin W. Robinson, eds.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1988
TypeMonographs and Collections
About the work
The supple wood of a linden tree contributed to the graceful movement and intense emotion Tilman Riemenschneider was able to achieve in this sculpture. The grain of the wood reveals the texture and form of skin, while the carving brings to life the fabric of the garments and how they drape from the figures’ bodies. This religious subject, known as a Pietà, depicts a moment of extreme sorrow after Jesus’ death as Mary cradles her son’s body just before his burial. This particular episode in the Christian narrative appeared in German altarpieces in churches and cathedrals at the beginning of the 14th century and was intended to stimulate compassion in the religious devotee towards the two central figures. In Riemenschneider’s work, the emotion of the event is realized through the exaggerated postures and facial expressions of the figures. Crouching to support her son’s shoulders with her left hand, Mary turns her face away in grief while Jesus’ contorted and elongated body lies limply in her arms.
This small sculpture, about 18 inches high, might have been a workshop model intended as a study for larger work. During the period when it was made, woodcarvers typically trained in the workshops of established sculptors, acquiring skills by working on less important sections of sculptures, often by studying or copying existing examples. Artists of this time, with their assistants, worked primarily through commissions, which were typically paid by religious organizations or individual donors requesting religious art, such as altarpieces for churches. Even a prolific woodcarver like Riemenschneider worked within established artistic conventions that affirmed or reinforced familiar religious narratives. Certain artistic choices are reflect here in the use of monochromatic wood, a departure from colored sculptural altarpieces popular up to this time, and the unusual composition of the two figures. These reveal the artist’s own interpretation of the narrative, but can also be understood in terms of debates that raged before the Protestant Reformation about the powerful, even dangerous nature of religious representations. (To learn more about the Reformation, visit this link.)
By the time Riemenschneider sculpted his Pietà, artists in Germany, Italy, France, and other parts of northern Europe had long been studying the human body as a realistic, expressive model for religious and secular sculptures and paintings in both public and private settings. Compare this well-known sculpture by Michelangelo of the same subject with Riemenschneider’s work. How do Riemenschneider’s figures differ from Michelangelo’s? Why do you think Riemenschneider decided to carve the bodies in the way he did?
Unlike in Michelangelo’s representation of this moment, in Riemenschneider’s depiction, Jesus’s body touches the ground rather than being cradled in Mary’s arms. This compositional placement connects Jesus to the earth and symbolically emphasizes his humanity over his divine or transcendent nature. Given this interpretation, how does the sculptor create a powerful connection between mother and son? Ask students to refer to relevant parts of the sculpture as they discuss this point.
Imagine this work at a larger scale in a church. What advantages are there in representing this moment in sculptural form in a single color rather than in a painting? Why might a church decide to commission—and display to its congregation—a three-dimensional sculpture rather than a two-dimensional work?
To investigate how specific details can contribute to the overall mood of a work of art, enlarge a section of the image of the Pietà, such as the hands of Jesus or Mary or an area of Mary’s draped clothing, and ask students to sketch the detail. Ask them to then discuss how this detail contributes to the mood and feeling of the entire sculpture.
To appreciate that the artist created the work with a religious viewer in mind, ask students to consider the ways the two figures are depicted to draw the viewer in. What do they notice about each figure’s physical qualities and facial expressions? How does the sculptor use clothing to enhance or clarify the emotions of each figure?
Michael Baxandall. The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Julien Chapuis, ed. Tilman Riemenschneider, ca. 1460–1531. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2004.
Jacob Wisse. “The Reformation,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/refo/hd_refo.htm (October 2002)