The scale of this work, which carries a date that may be read as either 1475 or 1479, indicates that the panel was intended to be used as a focus for private devotion on the part of the person who commissioned the work. It represents Christ as an ‘image of pity’. Jesus, displaying the wounds of his Passion, yet open eyed and thus ‘alive’, is shown cradled in the arms of his grieving mother. In the stance in which she appears in this painting, Mary is known as Our Lady of Pity, or as the Pietà. In the fifteenth century, fervent prayer in front of works of this type was considered to have the power to hasten the soul’s passage through the pains of Purgatory.
The devotional purpose of the panel also explains the use of gold leaf for the background, and the little images and symbols, related to the story of the Passion, that inhabit this field. The gold surface symbolizes the glory of heaven, which is the reward for prayerful contemplation of this painting, while each of the small figures and symbols is meant to act as a prompt to the viewer to recall individual episodes from the Passion narrative (the nails at the centre right, for example, refer to the nailing of Christ to the Cross).
The title of the work derives from Isaiah (53:3): ‘He was rejected and despised of men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief’. This type of representation is known as the Gregorian Image of Pity – a name with its source in an ancient legend about an image of this type that appeared miraculously before Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590–603) while he said Mass in the presence of unbelievers.
Text by Gordon Morrison from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 15.