Depicted is the lamentation of Christ under the cross, a scene that does not appear as such in the Bible. To the left we see John the Evangelist, barefoot and robed in a red mantle. His right hand supports the Saviour’s upper body, which is resting against the Virgin’s knee. With his left hand he is comforting Mary. The Mother of God supports her Son’s limp head and presses her cheek against his. At Christ’s feet Mary Magdalen kneels in veneration, alongside her an ointment pot, her customary attribute. The skull in the foreground refers to the location, Golgotha, literally “place of the skull”. Apocryphal texts frequently interpret this as the skull of Adam, whose fall brought death on the human race, and whose original sin Christ died to expiate. The withered trees to the left and right are also taken from medieval Passion stories, certain of which tell that all trees withered when the Saviour gave up the spirit. The emotional intensity of the Pietà witnesses to the influence of devotio moderna, with this type of tableau intended to move to viewer to compassion. Closer contemplation of the Passion would then lead to the imitation of Christ, or place the viewer into the right frame of mind to receive communion.
Text: Roel Slachmuylders (after), Museum of Ancient Art. A Selection of Works, Brussels, 2001, p. 20 © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels