This exceptional sculpture in walnut wood and large size 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 important: the technique of sculpture, the fineness of 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. Made of polychromed and gilded wood, our piece highlights the diversity and richness of the textiles: the Virgin’s dress, her cloak and Jesus’ perizonium are decorated with impressive motifs via the gilding technique of estofado.

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 compositional similarities 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 that 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 was the son of Pedro Berruguete, a painter who worked at the court of the Montefeltro family in Urbino and who introduced the painting of the Quattrocento to Castile while maintaining the Flemish lineage inherited from the Spanish Netherlands.

Trained in the family workshop to follow in his father’s footsteps as a painter and to take over the direction of the workshop; it is probable that he trained, at the same time, in woodcarving as a complementary activity. In 1504, he went to Toledo, then a major religious center, with his uncle to collect the money owed to his late father who had painted frescoes in the city’s cathedral between 1480 and 1500. A mixture of traditional 15th century Castilian forms and new Italian influences, the works of the cathedral and the city of Toledo offered the young Alonso an open door to the changing art scene of his time.

La dizaine d’années qu’il passe en Italie (de 1506 à 1518) ont été décisives dans sa formation en tant qu’artiste. Pendant toute cette période, en plus d’étudier les canons antiques et les maîtres modernes (Donatello, Masaccio ou encore Michel-Ange) ; Alonso se forge une solide réputation et une carrière de peintre à Florence. À la fin de son séjour, il avait démontré sa capacité à copier et surtout à innover, et se positionne comme un élément majeur du maniérisme florentin naissant. Après un passage à Rome, certainement la première destination de son voyage italien, il se retrouve sous la protection de Michel-Ange qui s’arrange pour qu’en 1508, Berruguete puisse accéder au Palais Vecchio à Florence où est conservé, sous clé, l’étude pour sa Bataille de Cascina. L’influence de Michel-Ange se retrouve dans le travail de Berruguete, dont des détails seront des éléments récurrents dans les productions de l’espagnol : ce fameux carton conservé Florence mais aussi des études préparatoires pour la chapelle Sixtine ou la célèbre Pietà. Dans ses Vies d’artistes, Vasari mentionne Berruguete à plusieurs reprises notamment au sujet d’une compétition à laquelle il prend part : l’architecte Bramante organise un concours de copie du célèbre ensemble sculpté antique du Laocoon, dans le but de faire couler en bronze la copie la plus réussie. Bien que sa formation première soit la peinture, et qu’il soit connu comme « pictore » en Italie : sa participation à un concours de modelage de cire comme celui-ci démontre de la renommée que Berruguete possédait. En 1518, il termina à Florence un retable laissé inachevé par Filippo Lippi. 

Ces années d’apprentissage en Italie et les nombreuses influences qu’il y rencontre vont donner naissance à un style très personnel et très expressif : renouant avec l’esthétisme de la fin de la période gothique tout en la modernisant, il insuffle vie et esprit dans les formes qu’il créait allant jusqu’à extérioriser la passion et les sentiments de ses figures. De retour en Espagne, il est fait Peintre de la cour par Charles Quint qui l’envoie travailler à la chapelle royale de Grenade. Mais ne recevant pas de commandes de la part de l’empereur et ne pouvant démontrer son génie, il finit par renoncer à l’art officiel. Alonso s’installe alors à Valladolid et est fait greffier criminel de la chancellerie en 1523. Il s’ouvre aussi à l’art privé en créant un atelier de sculpture et cette fois les commandes sont nombreuses. Lui et son atelier vont se spécialiser dans les retables de très grandes dimensions et richement composés. Sa sculpture se caractérise par des figures mouvantes, des volumes étirés et masses contorsionnées qui rompent avec la rigueur classique. 

Later on, he gives his characters asymmetrical faces and painful rictus, almost playing on pathos. Berruguete is also distinguished by the great attention he pays to textiles: the play of folds and the thickness of the garments are embellished with rich golden motifs; imitating on the wood the sumptuous Spanish brocades of the 16th century via the technique of estofado.

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 of the tomb of Cardinal Tavera, which death prevented him from finishing.

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 been enjoying new worldwide interest in recent decades, which is taking shape through studies of his drawings made in Italy; a review of his role in the renaissance of Spanish sculpture; and 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 preservation allows us to enjoy the great delicacy of the details, the brilliance of the gilding and the colors as well as the incredible technicality of the craftsmen who shaped it.

Pietà – Attributed to Alonso Berruguete – Gilded and polychromed wood – Spain – Early 16th century

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