Tag Archives: Michelangelo

This Is My Body

The Roettgen Pietà
The Roettgen Pietà (Vesperbild), polychromed willow or poplar, 89cm, ca. 1360, Landesmuseum, Bonn


The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.

In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it's an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue's emotional import.

The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life's end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed.

The anonymous sculptor captures these antinomies in visual and tactile form. Mary is straight and rectangular: her knees and hips bend at ninety degrees so that her lower legs and torso form a visual rectangle that establishes the basic order of the artwork. In contrast to her rigid, vertical, rectilinear form, the body of Jesus spreads in a zig-zagging diagonal from upper left to lower right. He bends at the ankles, the knees, and the hips, while his arms extend limply, one dangling straight down and the other resting on his mother's forearm. His enormous, heavy head falls back, bending his neck at an impossible angle and casting the thorns of his crown in sharp profile against the negative space. In macabre harmony, Mary's oversized head tilts slightly off center, toward his, as she stares blankly at the space before them and contemplates the horror of the moment.

The weight and angle of his head, his gaping mouth, his dangling arm, and his broken pose emphasize that Jesus is dead. Amplifying this point, the artist presents the wounds in his feet, hands, and side as plump blossoms of gushing blood held constant. Red paint describes the course of blood that once dripped down his arms, and rivulets of red make a maze of his forehead where thorns have harmed him. His near nudity and the gore of his wounds stand in contrast to the splendor of his mother's blue garment, once partly gilt. Continue reading This Is My Body


Poor Agostino di Duccio. He had learned his craft under the most innovative and imaginatively expressive sculptural master of the quattrocento, Donatello. But Agostino could not have been happy on the mountain in Carrara as he oversaw the quarrying of a shallow, broad block of marble some eighteen feet long. Over the course of his career, Agostino had taken to bas-relief work of the sort one finds on the façade of a church or a palazzo. He had created grand works in terra cotta, too, but clay is a thing far different from stone.

Nevertheless, here he was, perhaps because the elders in Florence had decided to make good on a fifty year old plan to erect a huge statue of Donatello's making on a buttress of the cathedral. Then in his late 70s, Donatello was no longer in a position to give more than nominal attention to such a project. To Agostino fell the labor. Continue reading Diegesis