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A theatre in wood: the Sopetrán Lamentation

A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris in front of the Sopetrán Lamentation, c. 1480, painted and gilded wood, 210.8 x 123.2 x 34.3 cm, originally part of an altarpiece at the Benedictine monastery at Sopetrán, Castile-La Mancha, Spain (The Cloisters). Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Lauren] We're standing in the Cloisters Museum in New York City, looking at a portion of an altarpiece from Spain in the 15th century that shows the Lamentation. - [Beth] This is made out of wood, which is an organic material, and I can see places where the wood has suffered the ravages of time. - [Lauren] The wood is polychromed, or painted, and in combination with the sculptor's ability to create very naturalistic figures, the paint also further enlivened the sculpture that we're seeing here. - [Beth] So we're seeing something that looks incredibly alive, as though this scene were unfolding before our eyes. The three-dimensional quality of sculpture, the painting which makes everything look more lifelike, makes this all the more powerful emotionally. - [Lauren] It makes sense that the artist would want to do that with this scene. The Lamentation has related to the Pieta, or the moment where Mary is grieving over her dead son. What makes it a scene of the Lamentation is usually when you have other figures that are shown in the scene. Here in the center, we see Mary holding Jesus's dead body as she stares down at his face. - [Beth] Think about the word lament, to grieve. We see these figures mourning for the death of Christ. - [Lauren] Figures surrounding Mary and Jesus are Saint John on the left, who cradles Christ's head, and then we see three women who are the biblical Marys. These were women from scripture, all who had the name Mary who were there at the crucifixion. - [Beth] And we see the cross in the background, and beyond that, what looks like a very natural landscape, though it doesn't look like the Holy Land. It looks like Europe. - [Lauren] It reminds me of what you would see in Bruges in the 15th century. - [Beth] This reminds me of a great painting by a Northern Renaissance artist, Roger can der Weyden, showing the descent from the cross. - [Lauren] There's a reason for that. The sculptor here is clearly influenced by van der Weyden's painting, but, of course, here has translated that into three dimensions, into painted wooden sculpture. - [Beth] I admit that sometimes Roger van der Wyden's painting looks like a painting of a painted sculpture. - [Lauren] And the artist here has really used his medium to his advantage. The four figures who are closest to us in the foreground are almost in the round, in three dimensions, and then two of the biblical Marys who are in the background are in lower relief, and then the landscape is completely painted in two dimensions. - [Beth] So we have to imagine this as part of an altarpiece with two levels of paintings on either side of it, showing scenes from the life of Mary and also the patron. - [Lauren] I'm reminded of a stage set. We have this compressed box where all the figures are actually grouped together and they're projecting into our space. - [Beth] Everything is really close to us, and that reminds me of Roger van der Wyden's painting, too, where the emotionalism is intensified by the closeness of the figures and the fact that there's really, at least in the van der Wyden, no real way for our eye to move past the figures. Here, the landscape is minimal, and the figures crowd the space and take our attention. - [Lauren] And accentuating the space are the sides of the compressed box that are painted with a brocade design. It's faded over time, but we can still make out this brocade that has a pomegranate and thistle design that comes from textiles, that clearly also had gesso applied to it to create a more raised surface. You would have been able to pick out those designs better than you can today. - [Beth] Imagine the whole thing was so much more vibrant and lifelike and colorful, much like the paintings that surrounded it. - [Lauren] Let's talk about the emotional display of the figures here. The women are shown in different stages of mourning, as is Saint John. We see one of the biblical Marys with her hands clasped, looking down. Her eyes look stained with tears. We see some of the other Marys holding their veil to their faces, their brows furrowed in grief. As I mentioned earlier, the Virgin Mary is hugging her son to her chest as she looks at him. And we really get a sense of the different ways in which we expect people to grieve over the death of a loved one. - [Beth] I suppose my favorite figure is the Mary on the right, who with one hand touches Christ's left hand, where we can see the wound from the nail from the crucifixion, the blood running down his arm, and gently holding that hand, while at the same time, holding her veil to her face in a gesture that I think we all easily relate to. - [Lauren] The artist does an excellent job of leading our eye around the composition here. The Mary on the top left, whose hands are clasped, is looking down at Saint John, who looks down at Christ as well, cradling his head, Jesus's arm is being held by the other Mary, and the Mary above her is similarly looking down in her direction. So we're led in a repeated circle around the composition. - [Beth] The painted panels that framed this altarpiece are currently in the Prado in Madrid, and it's a good reminder as we walk around the museum that often we're seeing what looks to our eye like a completed work of art, but which was once originally part of something much more complicated. - [Lauren] It's possible that the artist was Spanish and absorbing Netherlandish influences, or even possibly a Netherlandish artist who had come to Spain to find work, and the reason I say that is because we see characteristics of Flemish art, such as the attention to naturalistic details, the way that the drapery crumples. We see that particularly with Mary's mantle here in the foreground, but also that affecting emotionalism, the different expressions of grief and sorrow across the faces of the individuals here, and also the adaptation of Roger van der Wyden's famous painting. - [Beth] Because this is sculpture, I'm really noticing Christ's wounds, the holes in the wood, literally, that form the wounds that he received while he was on the cross and the blood that drips from them, even from the crown of thorns that he wears around his head. - [Lauren] And while over time, the red paint has faded, we can still make it out. This would have been really important in the context of the Liturgy, because during Mass, at the moment when the bread and wine were transsubstantiated, miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, this would have been behind the priest as he raised the chalice and the Eucharistic host to signify that miraculous transformation. - [Beth] So right behind the priest saying the Mass, we see here the literal body and blood of Christ. So the miracle becomes even more present during the service. (gentle music)