A Sword Will Pierce Your Own Heart Also
An African Pietà
Commentary by Martin Ott
The chapel of the theological seminary of the Jesuit order in Nairobi (Hekima College) hosts a Stations of the Cross designed by Engelbert Mveng (1930–95). An unknown artist in Kenya then executed the fourteen paintings. They are an outstanding example of contemporary Christian art in Africa.
Mveng was a Jesuit priest, author, artist, theologian, and prominent historian. On 22 April 1995, he was brutally murdered in his home in Yaoundé (the circumstances and the motive for his murder remain unclear). His internationally renowned works of art can be found in churches, chapels, and educational centres around the world—for example, in Nairobi, Nazareth, Chicago, and Yaoundé.
This painting presents the thirteenth station, traditionally called ‘Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross’. The scene captures the moment just after Jesus’s deposition, as Mary receives his dead body. It is an African Pietà.
The viewer can hardly help but be fascinated by the intimacy of the connection between the dead Jesus and his mother in this work. The almost identically drawn faces of Jesus and Mary express closeness; Mary’s dress and Jesus’s shroud have the same pattern; the two bodies have almost become one.
Mveng was a master of stylized designs made with a limited colour palette. He used only three or four colours. Christ’s face is like a mask—an African mask—which contributes to his portrayal as an ‘African Christ’. Mveng also draws on stylistic elements of Ethiopian paintings, in particular by simplifying the figures, exaggerating their eye areas, and using an economy of line to render their forms.
In the context of widespread suffering and death on the African continent, Mveng succeeds in creating a symbol of love and compassion. It is mostly African women who bear the worst repercussions of famine, sickness, and death, while also having to take care of their children (and often losing them). This female experience of mourning for dead offspring suggests something beyond mere biological necessity; it takes us into the realm of religious consciousness. It reveals the power of a love that is ‘stronger than death’ (Song of Solomon 8:6).
Thus, the visual similarity of the faces and bodies of Mary and Jesus in Mveng’s painting does more than express their closeness. As Mary’s compassion witnesses to this care that will endure beyond death, Mveng transforms the mourning African woman into an Alter Christus (‘Another Christ’).
Mveng, Engelbert. 1980. L’ art et l’artisanat africains (Yaoundé: Clé)
Ott, Martin. 2000. African Theology in Images, Kachere Monograph,12 (Blantyre: CLAIM)
Commentary by Martin Ott
The dead body of Jesus lies across Mary’s lap. Although she holds the left arm of her son, her grip on him looks so tenuous that you feel the body which twists away from her and towards us could slip to the ground at any moment. All five wounds of Jesus are visible. Mary’s eyes are lowered, the eyes of her dead son closed completely.
Mary’s posture—perhaps especially her compressed lips—reveal how difficult the situation must be for her, physically and emotionally. This sculptural group in the Thomas Morus Church in Laufach (near Aschaffenburg) creates a sense of oppressive silence and anxiety. It is the moment at which the ‘sword’ prophesied by Simeon has just ‘pierced [Mary’s] soul’ (Luke 2:35). A corresponding speechlessness may overwhelm the observer too.
It is not known whether this work was carved by Tilman Riemenschneider himself or by one of his students. Either way, the artist does not only suggest sadness, but pain, which in the absence of any spoken utterance is physically registered in Mary’s body, frozen in grief. Riemenschneider uses the traditional iconography of what in German is called the Vesperbild (Pietà in Italian). Other confirmed works by Riemenschneider himself give fuller artistic expression to the Virgin’s grief—as, for example, when Mary is depicted using her veil to dry the tears on her son’s cheeks (as in the Franciscan Church in Würzburg).
Riemenschneider was one of the most striking artistic personalities of the German late Gothic period, celebrated for his slender bodies and delicately cut faces. His sculptures representing Mourning Women and The Lamentation of Christ can be found in many churches in Northern Bavaria. Through hauntingly expressive gestures and faces marked by pain, the sculptor created impressions of deep sorrow that are still moving today.
Chapuis, Julien (ed.). 1999. Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Fröhlich, Stefan and Markus Huck. 2014. Tilman Riemenschneider: Meister, Ratsherr, Revolutionär (Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet)
Sliwka, Jennifer. 2019. ‘Review of Exhibition “Vesperbild. Alle origini delle Pietà di Michelangelo”’, Renaissance Studies, 34.3: 505–14
A Kiss Beyond Death
Commentary by Martin Ott
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.
Engelbert Mveng :
Jesus is taken down from the Cross (Station of the Cross no. 13), before 1995 , Painting
School of Tilman Riemenschneider :
The Laufacher Pieta, c.1520 , Limewood
Willem Key :
The Lamentation of Christ (Beweinung Christi), c.1550 , Oil on wood
‘A sword will pierce your own soul…’
Comparative commentary by Martin Ott
When Mary and Joseph presented the newly born Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem (fulfilling the requirements of Exodus13:2) they met an ‘upright and devout man called Simeon’ (Luke 2:25). Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary: ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (vv.34–35).
In Christian iconography this passage from the beginning of Jesus’s life is taken as a reference to Mary’s later lament over his death. Strictly speaking, the lamentation for the dead Jesus is not elaborated in the Gospels. In Luke 23:27–28’s account of Jesus bearing his cross to Calvary, the women of Jerusalem ‘beating their breasts and wailing for him’ are mentioned, but Mary is not named. Only in John's Gospel do we find an indication of Mary's presence at the foot of the cross with ‘her sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene’, and the anonymous ‘disciple whom he loved’ (John 19:25–27). Though Mary is not explicitly lamenting in John's account, it is from this brief statement that later images of her lament seem to be extrapolated.
The motif of Mary holding the body of her son—as presented in the three artworks in this exhibition—can be traced back to early fourteenth-century Germany and soon spread across Europe. Arguably, its most famous representation is that completed by Michelangelo in 1499 and now housed in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Although the Greek text explicitly uses the word psychē (‘soul’) Luke 2:35 is often translated to refer to the ‘heart’ of Mary. Starting from the seventeenth century, at the same time as the growing worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a parallel devotion to Mary’s heart evolved in popular religion especially in Roman Catholicism. This devotion led to an iconographic type in which Mary shows the viewer her heart, burning with love and pierced by the sword of Simeon’s prophecy. It was referred to sometimes as the Sacred Heart of Mary, sometimes as the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Today, the motif of a sword piercing the heart of Mary is considered by some as too ‘kitsch’ for contemporary religious taste. Yet Simeon’s prophecy to Mary that ‘a sword will pierce your own soul’ is likely to resonate with the feelings of any mother who has had to bury her own child. It is the reversal of the common human experience that children bury their parents. It needed the Renaissance’s ‘discovery’ of the individual to allow this human feeling to be unreservedly attached to Mary, who at this very moment is not so much ‘blessed virgin’ or ‘celestial queen’ but a mother who has lost her son.
All three artworks discussed here show the intimate moment when a mother mourns her son. They evoke in the observer the anguish each parent feels in losing a child. The fact that Mary is portrayed showing this anguish and unspeakable sorrow connects her to all mothers (and fathers) and connects them to her.
In its own way this analogy between a human experience and the lamenting of Mary deepens the idea of incarnation which lies at the heart of Christianity. Even the ‘Mother of God’ has lost her son! Because of this deeply human experience at the core of biblical revelation, the Vesperbild or Pietà can console mourning parents in their darkest hour. If something as terrible happens such as the loss of your own child, the feeling is beyond words. It is art—images such as the symbol of a mother holding her dead child—that can take that space and help to articulate such feelings.
Hazzikostas, Dimitri. 1998. ‘Grieving and Lamentation as Religious Themes’, in Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, ed. by Helene E. Roberts (New York: Routledge), pp. 363–72
Mazzotta, Antonio and Claudio Salsi. 2018. Vesperbild. Alle origini delle Pietà di Michelangelo (Milan: Officina Libraria)
Satzinger, Georg and Hans-Joachim Ziegler. 1993. ‘Marienklagen und Pietà’, in Die Passion Christi in Literatur und Kunst des Spätmittelalters, ed. by Walter Haug and Burghart Wachinger (Tübingen: Niemeyer), pp. 241–76
Schiller, Gertrud. 1972. ‘Lamentation of Christ’, in Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 2 (Lund Humphries: London), pp. 164–181, figs 540–639