Roettgen Pieta in or Around the Year Research Paper

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Roettgen Pieta

In or around the year 1325, an unknown German artist sculpted a dramatic scene central to the story of Christ: the moment at which Mary laments the death of her only son. This poignant moment is known as "the pity," or pieta. The pieta scene was popularized toward the end of the thirteenth century, making the Roettgen pieta one of the earliest and most historically significant representations this particular moment of passion. The scene is one that would become pervasive in Christian art and iconography, and studies of pieta sculptures can serve as proxy studies of the evolution of Western art, and Christian-themed Western art in particular. At the time the Roettgen pieta was created, pieces like these were known in German as Andachtsbild, or images used for contemplation[footnoteRef:1]. These images were especially common in Germany during the late medieval and Romanesque periods.[footnoteRef:2] Moreover, "as affective meditations increased in popularity between the 13th and 16th centuries, the popularity of the pieta (pity) as a subject of painting and sculpture unsurprisingly increased as well."[footnoteRef:3] The pieta was "a dominant theme that captured the imagination of the church in the middle ages."[footnoteRef:4] One of the reasons the pieta became a dominant theme at this particular historical moment was the shift in perspective from a hierarchical view of spirituality towards one that was more personal and therefore more emotional in nature.[footnoteRef:5] "The major shift was to a personal piety enriched by empathetic responses to the mother of Jesus holding a mutilated dead son across her lap.[footnoteRef:6] The Roettgen pieta embodies this shift in Western art and Christianity. [1: Horst Woldemor Janson and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art: The Western Tradition. Prentice Hall Professional, 2004, p. 174.] [2: Janson and Janson. History of Art.] [3: Christia Mercer. "Knowledge and Suffering in Early Modern Philosophy: G.W. Liebniz and Anne Conway," p. 3] [4: John W. Cook. "What is Christian about Christian Art?" In Interpreting Christian Art: Reflections on Christian Art, Ed. Hornik, Heidi J. And Parsons, Mikeal Carl. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004, p. 193] [5: John W. Cook. "What is Christian about Christian Art?"] [6: John W. Cook. "What is Christian about Christian Art?" p. 193.]

The wooden sculpture stands 34-1/2" high, or 87.5 centimeters. At nearly three feet high, the figure would have been ideal for placement in a small side altar or side chapel in a larger church.[footnoteRef:7] Of the wooden pieta altarpieces that are technically classified as Andachtsbilder, the Roettgen pieta is "considered the most graphic and grotesque."[footnoteRef:8] Indeed, art historians have referred to the Roettgen pieta in no uncertain terms as "gruesome stuff."[footnoteRef:9] [7: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997. ] [8: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, p. 132.] [9: Christia Mercer. "Knowledge and Suffering in Early Modern Philosophy: G.W. Liebniz and Anne Conway," p. 1]

The artist opted for vivid hues when painting the pieta, likely to evoke in the viewer a strong emotional reaction that corresponded with intense suffering related to contemplation of death. The viewer of the pieta is not just contemplating death as an existential issue but specifically the death of Christ, who sacrifices his life to promote the salvation of humanity. Vivid colors aid the viewer to respond to the image with "emotional fervor," as if the gruesomeness of the scene itself might be insufficient.[footnoteRef:10] Furthermore, the artist opted for a highly realistic rendition of the pieta rather than incorporate symbols. The artist conveys death in its totality, in the ways death affects the dying and the living as well. [10: Horst Woldemor Janson and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art: The Western Tradition. Prentice Hall Professional, 2004, p. 175]

Christ's physical, emotional, and mental anguish are paralleled in the reaction of his mother to her deep and unfathomable loss. The viewer, steeped in Christian allegory, theology, and mysticism, can then contemplate the global meanings embedded in the pieta such as the sacrifice of Christ. "The purpose of the work clearly is to arouse so overwhelming a sense of horror and pity that the faithful will share in Christ's suffering and identify with the grief-stricken Mother of God."[footnoteRef:11] The viewer is encouraged to identify and empathize more with the Mother of God than with the Son, and this fact is evident in the artist's composition. The artist renders Mary larger than Christ, who is emaciated, withered, and in a state of rigor mortis. Wounds are open and gaping, and blood streams down the arms and legs of Christ. [11: Horst Woldemor Janson and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art: The Western Tradition. Prentice Hall Professional, 2004, p. 175]

Although the sculpture is realistic from an emotional perspective, the rendering of Christ's body is exaggerated with "stark angularity."[footnoteRef:12] Christ's head is also disproportionate to his body: far larger and therefore more eye-catching. The emaciation and lifelessness of the body are contrasted sharply with the image of Mary, who is very much alive in her suffering. When the sculpture was viewed in situ, as in an altar or chapel, a candle would have illuminated especially the face of Mary in all its twisted suffering.[footnoteRef:13] Candlelight also would have made the bloody and infected wounds of Christ "stand out ghoulishly."[footnoteRef:14] [12: John W. Cook. "What is Christian about Christian Art?" p. 194.] [13: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature.] [14: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, p. 134.]

Interestingly, the pieta scene is not part of any Biblical allegory; it is not scriptural. Rather, the pieta imagery may derive from Greek theologian Simeon Metaphastes who is "the first, or among the first, to describe Mary holding the dead Christ on her lap."[footnoteRef:15] the artist interprets what the Church intends believers to feel when contemplating the story of Christ in scripture. The Roettgen pieta is an example of how the Church became adept at using art to manipulate the emotions and thoughts of its patrons. As some religious historians point out, the grotesque imagery of the pieta was especially important during the Holy Week and especially Good Friday.[footnoteRef:16] Churchgoers were being actively encouraged to feel both the suffering of Christ and the suffering of Mary in a visceral way during the Holy Week. [15: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, p. 133.] [16: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, p. 132.]

The artist's composition also contributes to the emotional response the pieta is designed to evoke. Mary's head is tilted towards that of her dead son, making the composition decidedly asymmetrical. Yet the artist achieves balance within the asymmetrical composition by having Christ's left hand outstretched across the body of Mary. The diagonal line formed with Christ's arm helps to create a series of triangulations: notably that between Christ's right and left arms. Mary's bulbous head can also be incorporated into a visual triangle, which leads the eye continually over the sculptural composition. The artist was keenly aware of the effect of geometry on the emotional impact of the pieta. Both Mary's and Jesus's torsos form the center of gravity, using the sculptural base as stabilization and grounding. This allows for the imbalance of Christ's head, extended on a limp dead neck. The strong solid center point of the piece and the base also allow Mary's head to be far larger than it would otherwise need to be. As a result of the asymmetrical composition, the viewer looks directly at the faces of Jesus and Mary. All of the grotesqueness, all of the imbalance, and all of the asymmetry are deliberate. "The modeling of Mary's head and facial characteristics demonstrates the abilities of an accomplished craftsman who has manipulated the medium for the strongest results."[footnoteRef:17] [17: James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, p. 135.]

Although the artist remains unknown and unnamed, the Roettgen pieta is a prime example of a major historical shift in the way Christianity was perceived and practiced in Europe. The Roettgen pieta signifies the trend towards mysticism in Western Christianity. Because of the origin of the pieta imagery in Greek theology, the Roettgen pieta represents the fusion of Eastern and Western Christian trends. The Roettgen pieta was designed to be an altarpiece for personal reflection and contemplation. Its grotesque imagery and composition provide a visual parallel to Church doctrine, which is why pieta sculptures persisted throughout the Renaissance.

The evolution of pieta sculptures reveals evolutions in Church doctrine and practice, as well as European culture. The Roettgen pieta conveys absolute suffering and begs the viewer to identify with the concept of Christ dying for the sins of humanity. It also asks the viewer to contemplate the moment at which a mother…[continue]

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