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Röttgen Pietà

The Röttgen Pietà, a late Gothic sculpture, portrays Mary holding her dead son Jesus. This emotional artwork reflects mysticism and spirituality from the Middle Ages. The sculpture emphasizes Mary's humanity, showing her confusion and anger. The vivid paint and details enhance the viewer's emotional connection, making it a powerful religious symbol. Speakers: Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

[music] We're looking at the Röttgen Pietà, a devastating image that dates from the early 14th century. So this is the late Gothic period, the latter part of the Middle Ages. -Here we see a great example of the spirituality, the kind of mysticism that emerges in the later Middle Ages, and I think we really see that reflected here in this gruesomeness. It's a very emotional image. Here we have Mary, the mother of God, holding her dead son on her lap and so palpably dead, so gruesomely, so violent a death, those gaping wounds in his hands and his feet, the gaping wound in his side, that three-dimensional blood that not only drips out, but explodes out of the body. Even the sharpness of the crown of thorns, we can feel those thorns that not only emerge out toward us but also went into Christ's head, and we see the painted blood dripping down his face. -So we call this the Pietà. If we're thinking of the narrative of The Passion of Christ, This is the lamentation. This is when Mary laments the death of her dead son. The lamentation from Giotto's Arena Chapel is something that we often look at and refer to for Italian art of the similar period. -But this has no other figures around it. We're just confronted with Mary and Christ. -And so the storytelling element, that narrative element is diminished here, and the artist is asking us to focus on this particular interaction between Mary and her dead son, but something that I think is very interesting is Mary's response. When I look at Mary here, I see that she's got a furrowed brow. I see anger in that face. I see confusion. And normally when we see representations of Mary in this late Gothic period, Mary is the Queen of Heaven. She's this divine or semi-divine figure who has this foreknowledge that Christ's death is going to be temporary, but when I look at Mary's face here, I don't see any of that foreknowledge. -There's a sense of how did the world go so awry that God made flesh, was crucified. What you're describing there emphasizes Mary's humanity, and earlier medieval representations show them as more distant and divine figures. This is a reflection of some changing ideas at the end of the Middle Ages. We would associate this with maybe Saint Francis of Assisi and with a few other medieval saints who are interested in mysticism. They're interested in feeling their religion, and so they spend a lot of time contemplating the crucifixion and the passion to emotionally connect to those things to enhance their religious belief, and this statue and other pietàs like it are really an outgrowth of this mystical idea, this idea that you can connect with God on a very emotional level. By stripping away those narrative elements, we're left with this very stark image. We're left with this concentration of emotion. It is interesting to compare this to Giotto's Madonna and Child from about the same period where we have an image of Mary as the Queen of Heaven, a figure who does not feel human emotions. She's above that. She's transcended that. Here, this emerging interest that we see in the Trecento, in the 1300s, in spiritual figures who are more like us, and therefore we have empathy with them. We can see traces of color here. We see some of the red from the blood. It looks like green paint on the drapery. But we have to imagine back to these colors being much more vivid. -We also see some damage in Mary's head. We see some wormholes. This is a wooden sculpture, and we don't have a tremendous amount of wooden sculpture that survives from the Middle Ages, so this is a really special example because it retains its paint. But the paint is something that helps to bring this sculpture alive, and the sense of the image becoming alive is important to this mystical sense of visions in the later Middle Ages where religious images were there to bring the moment alive in the mind of the viewer, and all of that blood that we see dripping from the crown of thorns over Christ's face that's really meant to intensify this sense that as you physically stand in front of the statue, it's as though you're seeing back through time to this event and then feeling the emotions. -I also think about this on an altar surrounded by a painted altarpiece by other painted sculptures by perhaps frescoes on the ceilings or walls of the church by priests wearing beautiful liturgical vestments. We have to imagine this within a visually rich, ecclesiastical environment and also imagine the sounds of the church, of prayers being said, of mass being said, and when we imagine that whole environment, it's easier to imagine that kind of visionary experience taking place. -When I think of this in terms of an original location, a lot of these were present in German nunneries, I try to imagine the kind of emotional journey that the viewer would experience in spending time with this image, kind of the initial shock and horror through to maybe feelings of empathy and maybe even eventually feeling God suffered so badly he understands what I suffer. [music]