A dead Christ lies on the lap of the Virgin, who struggles to hold his dead weight. While his limp right arm hangs down to the floor, his lifeless right foot nevertheless crushes a female-headed snake.
Lorenzo di Pietro, known as il Vecchietta, carved this extraordinary Pietà from a single piece of walnut wood. The Sienese sculptor and painter here interpreted—in a very personal manner—the Northern European iconography of the Vesperbild (literally ‘Vespers image’ in German, on account of its use in the evening service on Good Friday), which spread through the Italian peninsula from the end of the fourteenth century and gained wide currency in Italian art during the fifteenth century, culminating with Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà, 1497–99.
The wooden sculpture was rediscovered only in the 1980s in the church of San Donato in Siena, even though it was already described there by Fabio Chigi in 1625–26. Chigi reported an inscription—now lost—that accompanied the sculpture: ‘hoc opus fecit Laurentius dictus Vecchietto pro sua devotione’. The latter formula indicated that the artist executed it ‘for his own devotion’. It was a phrase that Vecchietta employed for at least one other sculpture and painting, both destined for his funerary chapel in the church of the Annunziata in the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
The snake in Vecchietta’s Pietà alludes to the redemption of humanity from Original Sin through Christ’s sacrifice. In this sense, it relates to Genesis 3:15, as it represents the passage ‘he will bruise your head’ (‘ipse conteret capum tuum’). The perpetual physical threat from human heels to the reptile which crawls on its belly suddenly takes on a new meaning here. For the power of evil which the serpent embodies will be spiritually crushed, once and for all, by the second Adam.
Bagnoli, A. 1987. Scultura dipinta. Maestri di legname e pittori a Siena 1250–1450 (Florence: Centro Di), pp. 177–80
Seidel, M. et al. 2010. Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello. Le arti a Siena nel primo Rinascimento (Milan: F. Motta), pp. 312–13
14The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all cattle,
and above all wild animals;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”