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Enguerrand Quarton(?), Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Enguerrand Quarton(?), Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, c. 1455, oil on wood, 163 x 219 cm (Musée du Louvre)
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're in the Louvre in Paris looking at a large pieta that we think is by Enguerrand Quarton. Dr. Harris: Right. This is attributed to that artist and that's because it resembles in style a handful of paintings that survived by him. He was an artist who worked in Provence in the south of France. Dr. Zucker: What art historians have tried to do in this case is tried to build an identity for an artist based on any records that exist. In this artist's case, we do have some contracts that exist, although not for this painting. Then we try to look at a painting stylistically and link it to others. Dr. Harris: Once you have a couple of paintings that are firmly established, that makes it easier stylistically to link them. This is a pieta, a subject that is very popular, especially in German Renaissance art. Stylistically it's linked to the artists of the northern Renaissance. We might think about Van Eyck or Campin. Dr. Zucker: Look at the clarity, this precision and the attention to the anatomy of the body. It is attenuated, it still has one medieval tradition, but the way in which the bottom of Christ's ribcage protrudes, the way in which the knees are so carefully rendered, the feet are so carefully rendered. This is an artist that is studying the body. Dr. Harris: It reminds me of Roger van der Weyden, the artist of the northern Renaissance, and the way the figures are very close to us. Some art historians have described this as restrained emotionally. There is emotional depth at Mary Magdalene. She's crying, you see her holding a jar that she anointed Christ's feet with as her attribute. Her head is bent over. This is very reminiscent to me of the interest in emotion that we see in the works of Roger van der Weyden. Dr. Zucker: The Virgin Mary who is in the center in a blue mantle is also beautifully depicted. There's a kind of solemnity, a kind of quiet sorrow. I think that part of the restraint comes from the separation of the figures. They are available to us, but there is so much space between them that they are, in some ways, alone in their sorrow. Dr. Harris: Absolutely. None of the figures reach out to one another like we see in northern Renaissance painting and so some art historians have described this work as having a kind of primitive quality in the way that it's rigid in its composition. Dr. Zucker: Look at John, over by Christ's head and the way that he's so gently lifting the crown of thorns and supporting Christ's head with his other hand, but because the fingers are so delicately articulated, it almost seems as if he's strumming the striations that come from Christ's halo, as it if was a celestial harp. Dr. Harris: Then, on the left, we see the donor in a position that's very typical, kneeling in prayer, but with an attention to the realism of this face. That's a portrait of someone very specific, but who's unidentified, obviously a cleric. Dr. Zucker: It's probably worth pointing out that the painting has layers of grime on it. It was in a church and it's important to remember the churches before the 20th century were illuminated with candles and with oil lanterns and oil that produces soot, which gets all over the surface of the painting. Dr. Harris: I imagine the blues and the greens and the reds are really quite stunning underneath. We do have a sense of a city, back in that left corner, but there's that gold background that simultaneously denies a sense of space. You could interpret that city as the heavenly Jerusalem, which would be a common subject to find in paintings like this in the background, but there's noticeably a dome there and smaller domes, which reminds me of Istanbul. Dr. Zucker: Those are minarets and those minarets actually have crescent moons on the top of them. This is clearly in Islamic context. Dr. Harris: I used the modern word for the city, Istanbul, but that could be in the 15th century what was Constantinople, which just a year or two before this painting's date was taken by the Ottomans. Dr. Zucker: So this might be, in some ways, of contemporaneous account and at least one art historian has suggested that the theme of the pieta would be appropriate to the loss of that important Christian city. Dr. Harris: Pieta simply means the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of her son. Usually surrounded by the figures that we see here. It can be a really awkward composition where a smaller woman holds the large body of a man. It's a little strange in that way, but the artist has dealt with that in a really lovely way by creating this arc of Christ's body that goes from the lower right to the lower left or vice versa. There's a nice, sweeping curve, so we don't notice that disjunction as much. Dr. Zucker: There is tremendous attention, also, to the folds of drapery that fall from the knee of the Virgin Mary that creates the inverted v under Christ's back. Look at the brilliance of those white folds that are revealed on the underside of the Virgin Mary's cloak. That attention to detail can be seen throughout the painting. Look, for instance, at the terrible scoring across Christ's body, from the whips that he endured. That torture is present even in this quiet moment of mourning. Dr. Harris: It almost looks as though Mary's tears have dropped down onto the wound in Christ's side and mixed with his blood. It's deeply moving. We see tooling in the gold that identifies the figures in their halos, which are decorative and stamped into that thin leaf gold background and we also see an inscription around the top of the image on three sides. Dr. Zucker: That creates a kind of frame. Dr. Harris: In thinking about how this painting was made with that gold leaf background, we see the red underneath. Dr. Zucker: That's red clay that's called bole and created a kind of soft, spongy surface that the gold could be laid onto and helped the gold adhere to the surface. It keeps the gold from having a cold quality and it gives it a warm luster. (jazz music)