The Structure of the Devotional Image: Pieta

A friend of mine travels quite a bit on business. While I knew that in most hotels he would have access to a bible, I wanted to provide him with an image for prayer, one that could be easily packed and carried but was yet lovely enough to invite contemplation no matter how weary the day's work left him. I also knew that creating the image would only be the start. The image would have to be "completed" over time: layered with contemplation and prayer so that whenever it would be opened, no matter how foreign the place, my friend would be at home.

I created the Pieta diptych like a small book that fits into the palms of your hands: Closed, it's four inches by six inches about one inch thick. The boards are gessoed in the traditional manner, covered in gold leaf and painted with oils. It fits into a hand-sewn velvet case with cord piping and a flap secured by a loop and a cord button. From the cord button hangs a small silver medallion.

I chose the Pieta as the subject because at the time I was contemplating a photo of Giovanni Bellini's large work of the same subject. (Giovanni lived c. 1430- 1516 and was the son of painter Jacopo Bellini.) The eyes of Bellini's Christ are swollen shut in death, and the eyes of the Virgin are puffy with grief. Below, the painting carries this inscription in Latin: "When these swollen eyes evoke groans, this work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears."

I copied into the journal that I began to keep as I started this project a passage from a book titled Giovanni Bellini: Images for Private Devotion:

    The idea of images that are endowed with human powers
    -like the ancient topos of the image that lacks a voice to
    be alive- is by implication related to those miraculous images
    of the Virgin that weep. Bellini's image too may shed tears,
    moved by the agonizing grief of Christ's mourners. All the lips
    are parted here, in the silence of death, in the gasps of
    weeping or in groans of sorrow.

Here, then, I found the beginning orf my inspiration: to capture in oil paint a moment of presence, a stifled sob that hangs suspneded between devastation and resurrection.

The Outside

The image of the Pieta is encased in two images of the pomegranate. The front of the closed diptych is painted a golden red within a gold leaf border. This is the color of a dried pomegranate. In the center niche is a hand-sculpted silver pomegranate, split open, revealing its seeds. The back of the diptych shows the Tree of Life-but here, it is a pomegranate tree laden with fruit. Above the tree, hands exchange a pomegranate, representing the sharing of the fruits of Christ. Perhaps the lower hand is Christ's, offering to God (the upper hand) his mission, passion and death. Or perhaps God is handing Christ the pomegranate as a token of the resurrection. Or perhaps the hands are yours and mine, sharing Christ between us.

In Middle Eastern culture, the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility with connotations of rejuvenation, hope, immortality and resurrection. Seeds constitute a universe within a piece of fruit. I also used the pomegranate to symbolize the church: an inner unity of countless seeds in the singular fruit that is Christ. On the cover of the diptych, the hand-sculpted silver pomegranate is split open, signifying both the opening up of the self to discover the interior world and the unity that each individual shares with others in baptism. Thus the split open pomegranate is an invitation to open the diptych, and in so doing, to open your own soul and to find communion even in solitude. The invitation is articulated in the Song of Songs:

    Come, my beloved,
    let us go forth into the fields
    and lodge in the villages;
    let us go out early to the vineyards
    and see whether the vines have budded,
    whether the grape blossoms have opened
    and the pomegranates are in bloom.
    There I will give you my love.
    Song of Songs 7:11-12

The Inside

When opened, the Pieta is on the right-hand side. The left side is polished gold leaf. It serves as a mirror: the face of the one contemplating the image appears next to the image of Mary and Jesus. The one who is at prayer completes the diptych.

In the image of the Pieta, I tried to contrast the peacefulness of the dead Christ with the mournful, earthly suffering of his mother. Although they are in different states, they are joined - wrapped round almost- by their arms. This composition of limbs, represents a spiritual unity. Christ's wounded hand rests above his heart. His arm- supported on both ends by Mary's arms- completes the half-circle that her arms form. Mary's outward gaze invites the viewer into the moment- a traditional iconographic technique.

The composition was inspired by John Tavener's contemporary setting of "The Lament of the Mother of God" from the Orthodox compline liturgy of Good Friday. I listened to it again and again as I painted:

    I wish to take my son down from the wood
    and to hold him in my arms,
    as once I held him when he was a little child.
    But alas! There is none to give him to me!...

    In my arms I hold thee as a corpse,
    O loving Lord who has brought the dead
    back to life...

About the Colors

Iconographers traditionally use egg tempera. Although here I have used oils and have not painted in the traditional style of iconography, my choice of colors was influenced by iconographical traditions surrounding the meaning of colors. In 1916 Eugene Trubetskoy wrote:

    The range of meanings is as infinite as the natural range
    of colors we see in the sky. First comes the blues, of
    which the icon painter knows a great many- the dark
    blue of the starry night, the bright blue of day, and a
    multitude of light blues, turquoise, even greenish blues
    after sundown. However, only the background is seen
    as blue; against it unfolds an infinity of the sky's other
    colors: the glitter of stars, the red of dawn, the red of
    nocturnal storms or distant fires; and also the rainbows
    many hues: and finally, the gold of the midday sun. In
    icons we find all these colors in their symbolic, other-
    worldly meaning. All are used by the artist to divide the
    empyrean from the terrestial plane of being. This is the
    key to the ineffable beauty of the icon's color symbolism.


With Trubetskoy's understanding of blue in the back of my mind, I began to think that a deep blue background would work well to signify the descent of despair and the shroud of griew wrapping itself around Mary. I imagine Mary speaking these lines of William Butler Yeats, from his "He Wishes for Cloths of Heaven":

    Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths
    Inwrought with golden and silver light
    The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
    Of night and light and the half-light,
    I would spread the cloths under your feet.
The blue background also means that the light in this work emanates from Christ's flesh, shrouded in white. Mary's face is clouded with sorrow, her robe blood red.

White and Red

The contrast in the colors of the robes-Mary's red and the white shroud wrapping Jesus- evokes the paradox in the scene from the Book of Revelation in which the martyrs wash their robes in the blood of the lamb to make them white (see Revelation 6: 13-17). David Philippart pointed out to me once that Mary Magdalene is often robed in red and portrayed bare-headed, as opposed to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who is robed in blue and white and rarely without her head covered. While I intended this image of Mary to be Jesus' mother and not Magdalene, the point is evocative. Has anyone ever done a Pieta with Mary Magdalene holding Christ's body instead of his mother? (In some images of the deposition, she is depicted as assisting in carrying the body, usually by carrying his feet.) How is the archetypal image of the Pieta transformed when instead of the relationship being mother-son it is disciple-teacher or friend-friend?

On the shroud itself is a single blood stain, calling to mind a verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

    What was the color of that blossom bright?
    White to begin with, immaculate white.
    But what a wild flush on the flakes of it stood
    When the rose ran in crimsonings down the cross wood!
    In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
    I shall worship his wounds with thee, mother of mine.
    - "Rosa Mystica"

And so it is my hope that whenever this diptych is opened, a garden of God unfolds, and the one who enters the pomegranate grove is moved to devotion.

E&A Letter September 1996
© 1996 Archdiocese of Chicago
Reproduced with permision

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