The dead body of Jesus is angled arrestingly towards the viewer as it dominates the foreground of Willem Key’s painting. Mary holds her son in her arms, embracing his left shoulder and his head. On Jesus’s right hand we see the hole made by the nail. His head is surrounded by an evanescent halo. The heads of both are close together, almost in a symmetrical arrangement, their lips all but touching. This is the moment the mother will give a last kiss to her son. It is a moment both of sensitivity and of dramatic tension.
One can sense the pain but also the love the mother feels for her dead son. The caress of her left hand and the press of her cheek against Jesus’s cheek convey the powerful feeling of a mother holding her dead son, a pain as powerful as a sword piercing her heart (Luke 2:35), producing the deepest feeling of love and insinuating a connection that transcends death.
Animals generally cease to care for their young when they die (one exception being chimpanzee mothers who have been observed carrying their dead babies around for days). Humans are able to remain in a loving relationship beyond the biological necessity of death. Mary’s last kiss is at the same time a kiss beyond death, a kiss of love ‘stronger than death’ (Song of Solomon 8:6). In doing so she demonstrates the human preparedness for a message of life after death.
The Pietà was the moment in which the ‘compassion of the Virgin’—who lives and suffers the Passion of her son—was principally developed. Through it, a parallel is drawn between the sufferings of Jesus and the sorrows and the anguish of his mother.
34and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”