Francesco Messina (1900-1995)
Collection of Modern Religious Art, Inv. 23353

General Description

This unusual Pietà by Francesco Messina shows mother and son in upright position. The vertical format underscores the great reverence owed to and nobility of the two figures, and what they stand for. The Madonna literally envelops her son from behind, grasping the tortured body of her son with both hands. Her whole gesture is one of tender love, infinite sadness and maternal reverence. Jesus stands tall and unshaken, in spite of the visible exhaustion, the limpness of his arms and hands, and his emaciated body. There is an aura of Don Quixote about him, a mixture of vulnerability, resignation, and unbroken ilusión (the Spanish word for conviction, enthusiasm, ideal). Jesus Christ is facing evil and misery both as victor and combatant. Messina’s attention is focused on the human aspects of salvation history, stressing pain and suffering borne in great love and certitude of faith.

The Importance of the Pietà

The Pietà featuring maternal love beyond cross and death, is part of the iconographic theme of the Mater Dolorosa, the grieving mother standing at the foot of the cross of her son. The theme of the grieving mother is universal. It can be traced to Sumerian (Inanna grieving for Dumuzi), Babylonian (Ishtar grieving for Iammuz), and Egyptian culture (Isis grieving for Osiris). There exist many variants of this theme in Christian art: the Madonna with the bleeding heart; with one or up to seven swords piercing her heart; the weeping Madonna; the Madonna of the Seven Dolors (Prophecy of Simeon, Flight into Egypt, the Search for the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the Meeting with Jesus on the road to Calvary, the Crucifixion scene, the Taking down from the Cross, and the Burial of Jesus).

The most prominent of these themes is that of the Pietà. It developed in the northern regions of Europe in the fourteenth century, became very popular during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and again during the baroque period. Various types developed beginning with Mary holding the upright standing or sitting Jesus (1350), similar to Messina’s Pietà. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Mary holds a childlike small Jesus on her lap, later his body is placed horizontally on Mary’s knees (beginning of the fifteenth century). During the second half of the fifteenth century, the body of Christ is placed frontally on Mary’s lap, whereas during the sixteenth century Jesus’ body is first shown in diagonal position, and later at Mary’s feet leaning against her knees.

The Pietà is one of the more popular representations of the Madonna during the 20th century. Marked by the sufferings of two world wars, countless war memorials in countries like France, Germany, and Great Britain adopted a secularized version of the Pietà to honor their dead (Epstein,Trades Union Congress War Memorial, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London). Countless also are the variations of the Pietà in Christian art during the twentieth century. Not only devotional but also so-called great art dealt with this theme.

Among the famous artists who painted the Mater Dolorosa is Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). Although a work of the ninteenth century (1889), it anticipates the many variations on this theme during the twentieth century. Rendered in the typical Van Gogh colors of blue and yellow, the mother stretches her right arm out to the onlookers in a gesture expressing a variety of emotions: helplessness and accusation, but also invitation to partake in her sorrow. The group of the sorrowing mother with the pitiful corpse of her son is placed in a landscape suggestive of desolation and loneliness. Mary, in this painting as well as in Messina’s sculpture, is a model of “sympathy,” of the one who suffers with her son. She is also the one who shared his passion of salvation.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 138-139.

For five related meditations based on votive Masses during Lent, see The Mary Page:

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