Pieta, by Lorenzo di Alessandro da Sanseverino

Pieta, 1491
Lorenzo di Alessandro da Sanseverino
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Tempera on wood
158cm by 62cm

This painting, called Pieta, was created by Lorenzo di Alessandro da Sanseverino in 1491. The work is made from tempera on wood, and is only 158 centimeters long and 62 centimeters high, but evokes an emotional response from the viewer because of the pain and agony clearly seen on the faces of the figures surrounding Christ.

The artist was the son of a wealthy blacksmith, but trained as an apprentice in the workshop of a goldsmith and painter. He later opened his own business that quickly became prosperous. The artist was also a part of the circle of an artist named Girolamo da Camerino, but little is known about this circle of artists. Sanseverino’s catalog contains about forty pieces while only two of them are signed. The painting was created as the top of an altarpiece that depicted the marriage of Saint Catherine and was intended for the church of Santa Lucia in Fabriano. It depicts Jesus in the middle, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John the Baptist. The painting now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Sanseverino also did work in the Tabernacle of Santa Maria di Piazza Alta in Sarsano.  Other pieces of his include, as previously mentioned, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London. He also painted The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints that is a part of the collection in the Museum of Art in Cleveland, and The Madonna with Child and Saints Francis and Sebastian, which is in the National Art Gallery in Rome. Sanseverino died in 1503, twelve years after completing Pieta.

Pieta is a subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Sometimes the pieta paintings also show other figures. When this is the case, it is commonly called a “lamentation” in English but pieta can still be used. The Italian term is pieta as well. There are three common types of representations of a sorrowful Virgin Mary. The first is Pieta, which was developed in Germany about 1300 and had reached Italy by the 1400’s. Typically, the German and later the Polish examples of pietas greatly emphasized Jesus’ wounds in his side and hands. Another representation is known as Mater Dolorosa, which means mother of sorrows. The final depiction is called Stabat Mater, or here stands the mother, in which Mary is shown standing under the cross.

The pieta theme was made famous by Michelangelo’s statue, completed in 1499. His representation shows the body of Christ larger than had been previously depicted, and he seems to be sleeping instead of dead. This is to show that his death was not permanent; that He would soon triumph over evil. Also different from previous pietas, Michelangelo created Mary much younger than historically accurate, to emphasize her agelessness and complete purity. This is the only statue that Michelangelo signed, indicating its importance to him as well as to claim it as his own. The statue is in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.


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