The Spasimo, or Swooning, of the Virgin Mary when she saw Christ carrying the Cross, has no biblical authority. All that is mentioned in the Gospels is that Christ passed the weeping ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ (Luke 23:28); but that Mary was among them was mentioned in apocryphal literature (Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as the Acts of Pilate) and was given greater currency by the Franciscan custodians of the pilgrim sites in the Holy Land where, by 1350, a church had been erected commemorating the place where she saw him carrying the cross and lost consciousness. By 1500, sculptures of the Spasimo were included in the reconstructions of the sites of the passion made in Italy by returning pilgrims, but no altarpiece of this subject earlier than that by Boccaccio Boccaccino is known to me. Soon thereafter it became popular chiefly on account of Raphael’s altarpiece sent to Sicily and known as the Spasimo di Sicilia.
In paintings of the Crucifixion made between 1300 and 1500, the Virgin is frequently shown swooning, as in the painting here attributed to Jacopo di Cione. One could claim that she is still on her feet and may recover before she falls to the ground. That is certainly not the case in Lorenzo Lotto’s later painting where she has clearly lost consciousness. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, the Virgin is described as having been at the foot of the cross together with other women (and to these the Gospel of John adds ‘the beloved disciple’; John 19:26–27). They are present in both paintings of the Crucifixion discussed here. Lotto, however, doubtless prompted by Christ’s request to this disciple that he adopt Mary as his mother, has made John the principal supporter of the Virgin, thus illustrating dramatically what that responsibility entails.
Some theologians had concerns about the way that artists depicted the Virgin swooning at the Crucifixion, as we know from a printed letter, dated 17 July 1506, addressed to Pope Julius II della Rovere by Tomasso de Vio Cajetan (or Gaetano after his native city of Gaeta) an eminent Dominican who was later created Cardinal Cajetan. De Vio observed that the Gospel of John explicitly stated (John 19:25) that Christ’s mother stood beside the Cross. Her standing there was indeed the subject of the Stabat Mater which commences, in the most familiar translation, with the words ‘At the Cross her station keeping / Stood the mournful mother weeping’.
De Vio seems to have anticipated a negative response from the Pope (who was a Franciscan, and in favour of establishing a feast day to celebrate Mary’s suffering) and he urged that, if the petition for an official feast did receive the Pope’s sanction, then it should not coincide with Easter Sunday or Palm Sunday. De Vio did also observe that if Mary managed to stand beside the Cross—an act of extraordinary endurance—then it would surely be surprising for her to have fainted on other occasions. But clearly what mattered most to him was her conduct, as described in the Gospel of John. If, as seems possible, Boccaccino had planned a painting of the Crucifixion with the Virgin fallen to the ground, then that would have met with objections, especially from the Dominicans. The artist, obliged to select another episode, may then have invented a new altarpiece subject.
The Dominican theologians believed that the Virgin Mary suffered with her full mind. The Franciscans felt that our sympathy for her would be increased by the depiction of physical infirmity. Theological debates do not always take account of artistic conventions but artists, for obvious reasons, favoured the representation of physical over mental distress because it had more visible impact. Several influential authorities towards the end of the sixteenth century continued to object to the depiction of the Virgin as collapsed or unconscious at the Crucifixion and Federico Borromeo in his De Pictura Sacra of 1624 deplored the convention. We know that at least one altarpiece was removed from a Church and one print censored in the early years of the seventeenth century for this reason, but it seems that the decision was made not to eradicate an image of such popularity—an operation which would have entailed the removal of thousands of paintings.
Either way, whether revered for an endurance that kept her standing, or adored for a love that felled her, Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross invites us to consider the acuteness of her pain, as Simeon’s prophecy comes to its fruition: ‘and a sword shall pierce through your own soul also’ (Luke 2:35).
Hamburgh, Harvey E. 1981. ‘The Problem of Lo Spasimo of the Virgin in Cinquecento Paintings of the Descent from the Cross’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 12.4: 45–75
Spivey Ellington, Donna. 2001. From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Washington DC: CUA Press)
26When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.