AP®︎/College Art History
- Introduction to the middle ages
- Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- Architecture and liturgy
- The life of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art
- A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
- Santa Sabina
- Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis
- Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis
- A beginner's guide to Byzantine Art
- San Vitale, Ravenna
- Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Theotokos mosaic, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia as a mosque
- Deësis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Bayeux Tapestry
- The Bayeux Tapestry - Seven Ages of Britain - BBC One
- Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France
- Chartres Cathedral
- Bible moralisée (moralized bibles)
- Saint Louis Bible (moralized bible)
- The Golden Haggadah
- Röttgen Pietà
- Röttgen Pietà
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 1)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 4)
By Dr. Nancy Ross
An emotional response
It is hard to look at the Röttgen Pietà and not feel something—perhaps revulsion, horror, or distaste. It is terrifying and the more you look at it, the more intriguing it becomes. This is part of the beauty and drama of Gothic art, which aimed to create an emotional response in medieval viewers.
Röttgen Pietà, c. 1300–25, painted wood, 34 1/2" high (LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn) (photo: Ralf Heinz, with permission)
Earlier medieval representations of Christ focused on his divinity (left). In these works of art, Christ is on the cross, but never suffers. These types of crucifixion images are a type called Christus triumphans or the triumphant Christ. His divinity overcomes all human elements and so Christ stands proud and alert on the cross, immune to human suffering.
Triumphant Christ / Patient Christ
In the later Middle Ages, a number of preachers and writers discussed a different type of Christ who suffered in the way that humans suffered. This was different from Catholic writers of earlier ages, who emphasized Christ’s divinity and distance from humanity.
An example of a Christus triumphans (triumphant Christ), Berlinghiero Berlinghieri, Crucifix, c. 1220 (Museo nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca)
Late medieval devotional writing (from the 13th–15th centuries) leaned toward mysticism and many of these writers had visions of Christ’s suffering. Francis of Assisi stressed Christ’s humanity and poverty. Several writers, such as St. Bonaventure, St. Bridget of Sweden, and St. Bernardino of Siena, imagined Mary’s thoughts as she held her dead son. It wasn’t long before artists began to visualize these new devotional trends. Crucifixion images influenced by this body of devotional literature are called Christus patiens, the patient Christ.
Segna di Buonaventura, The Crucifixion, c. 1315, tempera on panel, 38.4 x 27 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The effects of this new devotional style, which emphasized the humanity of Christ, quickly spread throughout western Europe through the rise of new religious orders (the , for example) and the popularity of their preaching. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of the idea that God understands the pain and difficulty of being human. In the Röttgen Pietà, Christ clearly died from the horrific ordeal of crucifixion, but his skin is taut around his ribs, showing that he also led a life of hunger and suffering.
Röttgen Pietà, c. 1300–25, painted wood, 34 1/2 inches high (LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)
Pietà statues appeared in Germany in the late 1200s and were made in this region throughout the Middle Ages. Many examples of Pietàs survive today. Many of those that survive today are made of marble or stone but the Röttgen Pietà is made of wood and retains some of its original paint. The Röttgen Pietà is the most gruesome of these extant examples.
Pietà, c. 1420, polychromed poplar wood, 92 cm high, Austrian (Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
Many of the other Pietàs also show a reclining dead Christ with three dimensional wounds and a skeletal abdomen. One of the unique elements of the Röttgen Pietà is Mary’s response to her dead son. She is youthful and draped in heavy robes like many of the other Marys, but her facial expression is different. In Catholic tradition, Mary had a special foreknowledge of the resurrection of Christ and so to her, Christ’s death is not only tragic. Images that reflect Mary’s divine knowledge show her at peace while holding her dead son. Mary in the Röttgen Pietà appears to be angry and confused. She doesn’t seem to know that her son will live again. She shows strong negative emotions that emphasize her humanity, just as the representation of Christ emphasizes his.
All of these Pietàs were devotional images and were intended as a focal point for contemplation and prayer. Even though the statues are horrific, the intent was to show that God and Mary, divine figures, were sympathetic to human suffering, and to the pain, and loss experienced by medieval viewers. By looking at the Röttgen Pietà, medieval viewers may have felt a closer personal connection to God by viewing this representation of death and pain.
Essay by Dr. Nancy Ross
Want to join the conversation?
- I'm not sure that this line, "Christ clearly died from the horrific ordeal of crucifixion, but his skin is taut around his ribs, showing that he also led a life of hunger and suffering." is correct. There's evidence that Jesus did not live a life of poverty. Could the artist have depicted Jesus in this manner for other reasons?(9 votes)
- Perhaps modern scholars do not think he lived a life of poverty, but in the middle ages it was widely held that he did. There was even a long debate in the 13th/14th centuries about whether Jesus owned the clothes he wore, and about the implications for the clergy if he did not own them.(17 votes)
- Interesting that this shift in attitude happened around the same time that the Black Death swept through Europe. Perhaps medieval worshipers were looking for empathy for their own suffering and losses, and projected that humanity onto representations of Jesus's death.(8 votes)
- That is an interesting hypothesis, but I don't think it holds up. The trend in making pietas such as this (where suffering was showcased) began decades and decades before the Black Death. The cause comes from elsewhere. It is useful to note that even in the 12th century, there was a trend in humanizing Mary and Christ. Perhaps this is another step in that movement?(8 votes)
- Why is the word 'Röttgen' used for this particular Pietà ?(6 votes)
- "Even though the statues are horrific, the intent was to show that God and Mary, divine figures, were sympathetic to human suffering, and to the pain, and loss experienced by medieval viewers."
It is worth noting that Christians do not consider Mary divine. She is a saint, but not a divinity. She is human and needed salvation, despite being (according to Catholic tradition) conceived without original sin.(3 votes)
- Where would this pieta have been placed originally? In a church for quiet contemplation, or in someone's home?(1 vote)
- I looked several places, and nobody had anything to guess. Where have YOU looked?(1 vote)
- What is the original location of the Röttgen Pietà?(1 vote)
- As I look at Mary's face I see an emotional state of one who may have had foreknowledge, but cannot take it all in. I think of Job. Churches describe those who suffered in the bible as stoical, able to absorb any misfortune. I think this statue is a wonderful representation of the humanity of everyone, even the most idealized.(0 votes)