Holy Week in Art: The Crucifixion & the Pieta
Good Friday in Art
In the Christian tradition, the Friday before Easter is Good Friday. The day commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus. In churches around the world today accounts of Jesus' death will be read with great solemnity and prayers will be offered. Jesus was crucified, a brutal and terrifying method of execution which was fairly common in the Roman Empire at the time. Human beings were nailed to large wooden crosses and publicly suffered and eventually died.
Over the centuries artists have struggled with how to depict this horrific event. Some have chosen a bloody realism. Others have used a softer filter. The crucifixion, however, is a very common subject in Christian art, but it did not become so until after crucifixion was outlawed in the empire in the 4th century AD. Before that, people had seen crucifixions first-hand. They did not need to see artistic representations of something that was fairly commonplace. Over time the cross, the symbol of the crucifixion, has come to be the most common symbol in Christian art.
One of Rome's oldest surviving depictions of the Crucifixion comes from Santa Maria Antiqua, a very old Christian church found in the Roman Forum. Santa Maria Antiqua was consecrated as a church in the 6th century AD and the frescoes on the walls date from the 6th to the 9th centuries. The church was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 847 AD, and eventually it was buried only to be discovered again after another earthquake in 1900 and subsequent archaeological excavations. It is closed to the public, but I often take groups of travelers there for private viewings.
Santa Maria Antiqua also has a beautiful Mother and Child -- a traditional depiction of Mary holding the infant Jesus. While these images are usually associated with Christmas, there is another common composition with Mary and Jesus: the Pieta. The most famous Pieta is Michelangelo's masterpiece, now in St. Peter's Basilica. The Rome Pieta was commissioned as a tomb marker for a French bishop. The contract Michelangelo signed for the project read: “I Jacopo Gallo promise the Reverend Monsignor that the said Michelangelo will do the said work in a year and it will be the most beautiful marble which can be seen in Rome today, and that no other master could make it better today.”
Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he carved the Rome Pietà, but during his life he turned again and again to the image of Mary holding her dead son in her lap. He lived through wars and the plague, political intrigue and unsanitary living conditions, and Michelangelo knew death and grief. He outlived his entire family as well as many of his friends. He seems to have poured his own grief into his work.
Of the two pietàs that he worked on as an adult, my favorite is the Florentine Pietà. Now housed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, the Florentine Pietà represents Michelangelo's older years. He began work on it following the death of his dear friend, Vittoria Colonna. She died in 1545, when Michelangelo was seventy years old.