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. Only in John’s Gospel are there two non-explicit statements on which later images of lament seem partly to be grounded: John 19:25–27; 20:11, both of which involve Mary.
In the former passage, during the crucifixion, she is standing near the cross, though not explicitly lamenting, with ‘her sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene’, and the anonymous ‘disciple whom he loved’. In the latter passage, after Jesus’s death, Mary is alone, ‘weeping outside the tomb’. 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.
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
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.”