Twenty Objects for Twenty Years: Alabaster Pietà, Southern Netherlands

This statuette of the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ on her knee is a small masterpiece of alabaster carving.  Just under 40 cm in height, it was made in the Southern Netherlands by a sculptor known, slightly confusingly, as the Master of Rimini (after an alabaster Crucifixion scene now in a museum in Frankfurt, which comes from a church outside Rimini in Italy).  This master has recently been identified as the Bruges alabaster carver Gilles de Backere, active in the 1430s.

Pieta

Master of Rimini (Gilles de Backere?), Southern Netherlands, Virgin with the Dead Christ (Pietà), 1430s, carved alabaster.  Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 10. A.28-1960, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alabaster is fine grained form of gypsum, in this period often associated with England, but also mined in the Netherlands.  It is soft and easy to work, and lends itself to high quality, fine carving, as evidenced by the delicate detailing of the Virgin’s draperies (note the pleats on the edge of her veil), Christ’s hair and beard.  It is particularly suited to small scale works, and the workshops of Bruges (like their counterparts in England) specialised in producing statuettes and reliefs for sale on the open market, often for export.  As a major commercial city with a flourishing art market, Bruges was well placed to meet demand.  Indeed the Italian provenance of the Rimini Master’s Frankfurt Crucifixion is a reminder that high quality Netherlandish works were prized throughout fifteenth-century Europe.  Unlike more down-market alabaster reliefs from England, such as the Swansea Altarpiece in the V&A’s British Galleries, which were extensively painted, the costlier Netherlandish alabasters rely on the finesse of carving and the delicately veined, polished surface for visual effect.  There are traces of colour in parts of our Pietà, for instance on Christ’s hair and beard, the crown of thorns and the Virgin’s draperies, and limited gilding was also probably used, but large areas, notably the flesh, were very likely left uncoloured, allowing the beauty of the material and the skill of the carver to speak for themselves.

Christ detail

Master of Rimini (Gilles de Backere?), Southern Netherlands, Virgin with the Dead Christ (Pietà), 1430s, carved alabaster.  Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 10. A.28-1960, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s possible that the Pietà was made for private devotion as a stand-alone object, but equally it may have comprised part of a group ensemble.  There are several documented cases of alabaster statuettes being purchased and assembled into altarpieces on their arrival.  Our Pietà might have been intended to be viewed slightly from below, which would explain the rather elongated torso of the Virgin – try crouching down in front of it next time you’re in the gallery and see what you think!

Virgin detail

Master of Rimini (Gilles de Backere?), Southern Netherlands, Virgin with the Dead Christ (Pietà), 1430s, carved alabaster.  Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 10. A.28-1960, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The theme of the Pietà was immensely popular in late medieval and early renaissance Europe.  The word is Italian for ‘pity’, although the iconography of the Pietà in fact evolved in fourteenth-century Germany, where it is known as the Vesperbild (‘vesper image’), because it was associated with the ritual of evening prayer (Vespers).  It shows the mourning Virgin cradling her dead son on her lap after he has been brought down from the cross, in a poignant allusion to the familiar image of the Virgin and Child.  Such imagery played to the devotional mores of pre-Reformation Europe, which stressed the need for empathy on the part of the viewer: here, the devotee could contemplate the mother’s anguish and the physical suffering experienced by Christ for the salvation of mankind.  The realism of Christ’s wound and crown of thorns, and the tender gesture with which Mary supports his limp head and left arm, intensify the pathos of the image.  Christ’s right arm Stylistically it is on the cusp between late gothic – exemplified by the calligraphic looping folds of the Virgin’s drapery, and her swaying pose – and the more realistic manner of contemporary Netherlandish painters such as Rogier van der Weyden (c.1400-1464), whose expressive, angular forms are recalled in the figure of Christ.  The slight ungainliness produced by showing an adult man on a woman’s lap was not something to worry contemporary viewers, indeed this too may have contributed to the desired mood of anguish.  Nevertheless, as a problem inherent in Pietà imagery it was ultimately to be addressed, and resolved, by Michelangelo at the end of our period, in his famous, near life size, marble Pietà of 1499, now in St Peter’s Rome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *