This exceptional large walnut wood sculpture represents a Virgin of Pity, also called Pietà. After the descent from the cross, Mary holds Jesus dead in her lap. This very moving moment is not found in the Bible, but is spread, with other new themes, in Europe via the movement of the Devotio moderna. This current of thought, born in the Germanic area at the end of the 15th century, aims to reform the Church, to modernize the faith, to eliminate the intermediaries between the faithful and God and to make the holy characters models of life and piety but accessible by insisting on their humanity. By making faith more active and personal, Man becomes the source of his own salvation: earthly experiences become opportunities to imitate Christ during his own life on Earth, to act like him and thus merit salvation. This period also saw the development of devotion to the Virgin, particularly through the theme of the Virgin of Pity, which was popular in Europe throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. It is the pain of the Virgin, that of a bereaved mother, which is presented to the faithful through the figures of Pietà.
Sometimes shattered by grief, with a face marked by pain; and sometimes with a serene expression reflecting the acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice; these Virgins represent a wide range of emotions. The most famous of all is the one made by Michelangelo in 1498-1499, today in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The impact of this sculpture on the artistic scene of the time is more than significant: the sculpting technique, the finesse of the details and the reputation of Michelangelo make this Pietà one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance .
Several similarities can be found with our work: the posture of the Virgin, her youthful appearance for a mother of a 33 year old man, the slouching body of Christ and the important play of drapery of the Virgin’s cloak. Mary’s face also has the same features found in the Italian Virgins: a fine, symmetrical and very gentle face. On the other hand, our piece differs from the one in Rome by the face of Christ marked by death, the wounds of the Passion that are present on his body (the stigmata: on the hand, on the feet, on the right side of the chest), and especially the loose and deformed posture of Christ that perfectly fits the knees of his mother. In polychromed and gilded wood, our piece highlights the diversity and richness of textiles: the virgin’s dress, her cloak and Jesus’ perizonium are decorated with impressive patterns using the estofado wood gilding technique.
Our piece is related to the work of the Spanish sculptor Alonso Berruguete and his workshop. A talented sculptor trained as a painter, Berruguete is known for his large altarpiece ensembles with complex composition and numerous figures. Elements of our Pietà can be found in other works of Berruguete’s corpus and thus allow a comparison. In the Mayor altarpiece of the Monastery of La Mejorada in Olmedo (in the province of Valladolid in Castilla y León), made between 1523 and 1526 by Berruguete and his workshop, we can see in several scenes that the pattern of the clothes of the characters is similar to that of our Virgin’s dress: a red fabric, golden vegetal motifs, a large daisy and a linear border. Note that in the work of Berruguete, the Virgin wears a red dress with golden plant motifs in a regular way. We also find similarities in composition with the Madonna della Cintola (1516-1517, Basilica of the Holy Spirit, Florence) which is one of the only works by Berruguete made during his stay in Italy, which has come down to us.
Alonso Gonzalez Berruguete (c.1490- 1561) was a Spanish painter and sculptor who was one of the major figures of the Iberian Renaissance. He is the son of Pedro Berruguete, a painter who worked at the Montefeltro court in Urbino and who introduced Quattrocento painting in Castile while maintaining the Flemish heritage inherited from the Spanish Netherlands.
The ten years he spent in Italy (from 1506 to 1518) were decisive in his formation as an artist. During this period, in addition to studying the ancient canons and modern masters (Donatello, Masaccio and Michelangelo), Alonso established a solid reputation and career as a painter in Florence. By the end of his stay, he had demonstrated his ability to copy and above all to innovate, and positioned himself as a major element of the emerging Florentine mannerism.
These years of learning in Italy and the many influences he encountered there gave birth to a very personal and very expressive style:
reconnecting with the aesthetics of the end of the Gothic period while modernizing it, he breathed life and spirit into the forms he created, going so far as to externalize the passion and feelings of his figures.
At the end of his life, as a return to his roots, he moved to Toledo to work on the choir stalls of the cathedral where he executed a group of Transfiguration of Christ. One of his last masterpieces is the alabaster recumbent figure from the tomb of Cardinal Tavera, which death prevented him from completing.
A complete artist, a true businessman and a competent workshop master, Alonso Berruguete left a large number of disciples and followers who would use the exaggerated expressions of his figures to create a Spanish mannerism of which El Greco is the most eminent heir. An artist long unknown to the general public outside of Spain, Berruguete’s art has benefited from a new global interest in recent decades which has materialized through studies of his drawings made in Italy; a review of his role in the renaissance of Spanish sculpture or a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 2019-2020.
Very inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà in its composition, our Pietà responds however on many points, of the Spanish tradition of woodcarving. Made shortly after his return from Italy, this work demonstrates Berruguete’s ability to adapt and modernize traditional Iberian sculpture, adding his own technical knowledge and the Italian models of his time. Its excellent state of conservation allows us to enjoy the great delicacy of the details, the brilliance of the gilding and the colors as well as the incredible technical skill of the artisans who shaped it.