A-to-Z Index

Lamentation, Behind the Scenes


“Lamentation,” North Italian or Bolognese school, oil on metal, c. 1575-1650.

The Artist

 Though the artist did not sign or date his work, he may have been from Bologna, Italy because of the technique he used. The scene is painted on a metal plate, possible some form of copper. Painting on copper was popular as a technique in a relatively brief period, from 1575-1650. Bologna was the center of this medium, although it was also popular in Florence and Venice. Based on stylistic evidence, it appears he was Bolognese or North Italian.

Question: Why paint on copper? Do any contemporary artists use this medium?

Answer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AZi2_ViDr4

The Researcher

Dr. Kathleen G. Arthur is JMU professor emerita of art history, and curator of Medieval and Renaissance art at the Madison Art Collection. She has been researching this altarpiece and has written the following description as part of the ongoing project to catalog the collection. 

 “Lamentation,” North Italian or Bolognese school, oil on metal, c. 1575-1650.

 The scene of Christ mourned by the Virgin, saints, and angels after the crucifixion is variously called the “Deposition,” “Pieta” or “Lamentation.” The Gospels refer briefly to the disciples taking the body of Christ down from the Cross in Matthew 27:57-59Mark 15:44-46; Luke 23:52-53, and John 19:38-40. None of these texts describe the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of her son. It is clear that later Medieval meditations on this critical point in the Passion narrative have influenced the way artists portrayed this moment, and there is a great deal of variety in interpretation of the subject. (See various other comparative examples at http://www.textweek.com/art/pieta.htm)

 In our image of the Lamentation, the body of the dead Christ is displayed almost vertically, front and center, to stimulate the viewer’s own piety and prayers for salvation.  Unlike Medieval images that usually emphasize Christ’s emaciated, tortured body, here his body is muscular and has a classical, tragic beauty. His vertical posture recalls a related type of Lamentation, the “Man of Sorrows” image which developed during the fourteenth century and became popular as a private devotional image in the early Renaissance. The grief-stricken Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen appear on the left. A small winged angel or “putto” holds Christ’s left arm, while Mary Magdalen holds his other hand with her fingers intertwined with his, an unusual gesture. Simultaneously she leans over as if to kiss the nail wound in his hand.  Her jar of ointment rests on the top of the sarcophagus, or burial chest. Other angels fly around in a dark and stormy sky, and at the top of the arch, two putti seem to be carrying away the cross.

 The Lamentation is painted on a copper metal plate, a technique that developed in the later sixteenth century in the north Italian city of Bologna.  Because of the invention of printing in the previous century, artists were familiar with copper plates as a medium for printing etchings or engravings. Bologna became a major center for painting on copper, and was often used by artists such as Bartolomeo Passarotti, Denys Calvaert (who taught the process in his art academy), Guido Reni, and Francesco Albani.  Painting on copper was popular as a technique in a relatively brief period, from 1575-1650. This technical evidence helps situate our painting chronologically within this time-frame.

 The late sixteenth and early seventeenth century is known as the Counter-Reformation period, when the Catholic Church encouraged artists to paint more naturalistic devotional images that would help the common people (who often could not read the Bible themselves), understand Christ’s life.   More than just intellectually understanding the events, the Catholic Church wanted artists to help people identify and empathize emotionally with the lives of the saints. Mary Magdalen was often represented in Baroque art because she was a fallen woman who had redeemed herself through faith and prayer, and thus served as a model for the common people. Her unusual gesture of intertwining her fingers with Christ’s fingers is the kind of inventive, strikingly tactile motif that would have appealed to priests at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church conference which produced new guidelines for religious art in 1566.

 (Kathleen G. Arthur)