How Michelangelo’s Pieta Impacted on a Mother Grieving the Loss of Her Child.

Background:

 I first noticed the Pieta following the traumatic death of my son. Coming from church background where Mary, mother of Jesus, is not given any great prominence, I discovered her importance to me as a mother who had lost a child, which invoked a deep questioning of belief and faith.[1]

Background:

I have discovered that my experience best resonates with a feminist trauma theology. By confronting God amidst grieving, my understanding and reflection of the events surrounding my son’s death have been a way of trying to make sense of it.

The need for a “thick” description and reflection on the experience is outside of the remit of this case study but examples can be found in appendix 1.

Restrictions to the study

Whilst the Pieta is not found in scripture, it is an historic theme, from the mystics in 13th century Germany. Mary, mother of Christ, cradles the body of Jesus in her arms. There are different types; however in order to manage the scope of this case study I have focused on perhaps the most famous Pieta, that of Michelangelo’s, hitherto referred to as “La Pieta”. [2]

My own bias cannot be ignored in this case study, that of a white middle-class female and mother, and as part of feminist theology this is essential for reflexive writing.[3]

Grieving and Art

In modern times in the developed world, there is said to be no precedent for the “catastrophic, wrenching and disabling” loss of a child where the parent is rendered helpless.[4] The mother’s self-confidence and self-belief are shaken by the often overwhelming guilt at failing to protect her child. Whether or not it is a biological or social construct, mothers generally appear to grieve with more intensity than Fathers. Perhaps this is because the baby has been physically part of the mother; and indeed remaining a mother to her dead child remains core in her identity. Whilst a man grieves for a dead child, the woman “grows life and howls in death”[5].

There is a danger with these assumptions, however.  What of the non- biological mother figure? These theories would assume that anything less than biologically carrying, labouring and bodily nourishing a child somehow would bring about a lesser grief. Indeed, focusing on the differences of how men and women grieve could be said to impose gender roles.[6] My husband’s grief was not less, but different; so I would argue that grief is unique, regardless of gender or biological ties, and based on individual relationships. Nonetheless, my own experience is that of a biological mother recalling the physical memory of growing a child in her womb and nourishing at the breast.

Art speaks into grief, releasing both lament and the very physical symptoms of general distress, functional impairment, depression and anxiety associated with grieving.[7]  When grieving is beyond words, it is images, poetry and writing that help to express the deepest feelings, speaking into our situations, and can be consoling in the worst moments.[8] 

Pieta

The triangular form of La Pieta, (appendix 2) serves to create a sense of balance and harmony in keeping with Michelangelo’s style.[9] The enhanced size of Mary, with Jesus delicately draped across keeps this balance but may also be suggestive of Mary imagining she was holding Jesus as a baby once again, when he would have fitted perfectly on her lap. [10]                                   

Mary is shown to be youthful and unblemished, which Michelangelo, believing in Mary’s immaculate conception and perpetual chastity, common at that time, said was due to her purity.[11] Death was also common in the 15th century, so beauty and youth offered a sense of escapism and the reassurance. [12]

From my own experience, when a mother loses her child she remembers their birth and life as well as their death, so I can relate to the possibility of Mary imagining she was holding Jesus as a baby.

Mary is a historical Jewish middle-aged woman whose grief in the traumatic death of her son connects her with many bereaved women, and yet in La Pieta there is no evidence of the raw grief or age in her face.

Age can be beautiful, but death is ugly and excruciatingly painful for the ones left behind; death rips the loved one away from you. Eyes are swollen and ache with crying and there is nothing beautiful about identifying a body swollen and disfigured by death.

But in between the crying, there was a stillness in me, borne out of the contradictions of disbelief in my son’s death and belief in knowing my son was resting in God’s eternal presence.

The happy memories of him as a baby, growing up, enjoying the love and protection of his mother were the memories I chose to recall- and so the young Mary, beautifully poised in marble with her son draped over her was something that resonated with me. And there was the beauty, rather than the ugliness; the hope juxta positioned with despair.

Because Mary is a symbol of all that is pure in Michelangelo’s La Pieta, her own reality can be lost. Her life was a real human journey in which she lived and suffered as we do; and it was viewing her as a mother, not as a venerated saint and God bearer that spoke to me and made me appreciate her in a new way.[13]

Another notable aspect to La Pieta is Mary’s left hand facing upwards as if reaching out. One interpretation is that grief is “open ended and unexpected”, or that it beckons worshippers to draw nearer and meditate on the death of her son.[14] Both are relevant for the grieving mother. There is a desire for others to know about your child, for their death to have some meaning and for their memory to live on, inviting others into this. When the unimaginable happens and your child is torn from you in this life, for me there was a sense of complete submission to God, hands open and raised to God for strength to carry on.

A painting or sculpture captures a moment in a fixed time, and in this moment of grief, the nature of which changes hour by hour at first, captures Mary’s bowed head, “in submission” to God,  for what else can one do in the emptiness between the tears?

Yet we return to Mary’s serenity which somehow seems to deny her sadness, the male artist expecting her to be accepting, and how this reveals the attitudes at that time towards women grieving. There is a history of distressed women being considered insane and in Judaism when the woman cries at the grave or leaves mementos she is considered unbalanced.[15] The male however can recite the Kaddish, a mourner’s prayer and is seen to be obeying God’s law in the community.[16] Examples of male mourning in the Bible include that for Stephen the first martyr, “Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him”, despite them being reassured of his eternity, and of course, “Jesus began to weep”, the words coming from “tear” suggesting that Jesus’ grief was more than serene, he was in fact deeply troubled in grief. [17] So there seems to be a gender inequality around the male being allowed to mourn openly but the female, and one so virtuously depicted as Mary, being passive and young and beautiful in their grief.

This passivity, suffering and focus on Mary’s motherhood could be seen to be oppressive rather than helpful because she is could be seen as helpless.[18] Yet Mary is anything but helpless in her life; she sings her song of praise, after the trauma of finding herself pregnant, allowing herself to make sense of what has happened to her and move forward with it. [19]

The serenity of Mary in La Pieta could be attributed to her feeling numb with disbelief and shock, often the first emotions on encountering the death of a loved one. [20] Indeed my first emotions varied between numbness and stillness to body shaking sobs. I was alternately silent, composed and socially acceptable, but also ugly and loud in my grieving and lament, being offered sedation to quieten me.

There are many contradictions in both grieving and how Mary is portrayed. The poem, “The Contradictions of Mary” perfectly sums this up,[21]  (appendix 3). La Pieta could be classed as a visual poem, and other pietas do show Mary older, wrinkled, angry and bewildered (appendix 4), which when viewed alongside others demonstrates the swings of emotions in grieving. [22]

Conclusion

La Pieta was powerful for me in the grieving of my son. It has enabled me to relate to Mary as another mother who understood what it was to experience such trauma. It enabled me to contemplate and pray on something that was beyond my understanding. La Pieta was just one among many Pietas that spoke to me, however, and depended on my grief at any one time. Although there are contradictions in how to view this artwork, there are many contradictions in grief which is reflected in my own experience. Therefore viewing different pietas could assist the grieving mother at different times reflecting the changing emotions that Mary portrays in this type of art.

Appendix 1

Thick description (amended extract from my blog)[23]

I have been married for 31 years and have 3 children. My oldest two have been married for 5 years and my youngest has been in Heaven since the  24th July 2013 (aged 16)

We were holidaying in in South West France and it was the first day in our main resort and my daughter’s 19th birthday. My oldest son had stayed at home. As a family we met up for lunch and then mid-afternoon went to the beach. My husband and youngest son went into the sea.

They were within their depths at chest level and there were plenty of other people in the sea. My husband felt a tugging and advised my youngest to come further in shore with him but when he turned around to check our youngest had disappeared.

There was a large rescue operation employed which continued over the next couple of days. Early on Saturday 27th July my son’s body was found by a fisherman. He had drowned in what appears to have been a rip current.

In the months that followed we had two breaks away as a couple and my brokenness and then healing was facilitated by visits to many churches abroad which is where I first came across the Pieta.

The thing about Mary (Extract from blog written on 19th September 2013)

Anyway- as I am (or thought I was!) firmly at the “low church” end of the Church of England- in other words nowhere near Anglo – Catholic with its “bells and smells”, I have discovered I now view Mary, Mother of God in a new light. It’s not that I didn’t think of her part in Jesus life, it’s just that it doesn’t feature so largely in the church tradition I am closest too. However, I have found myself considering her grief at seeing her Son rejected, tortured and killed. The Son she carried in her womb and who brought her both joy and such pain. Mary and I share a grief. Mary understands what it is to give birth, bring her child up, watch him grow into a young man and then unnaturally die. Mary understands me. After all- God may have been through everything but He didn’t give birth did He? He didn’t breastfeed, did He?

When I went to the Convent recently and considered the Stations of the Cross- again not something that I’m overly familiar with- there was a painting of Jesus reaching out to his mother and it spoke so much to me. I want to reach out to my son, to pull him back to me so I can hug him and kiss him and tell him I love him. But I guess I have to accept that is what God has done and looks after him. I do find myself asking God at times though, “was I not a good enough mum to him? Did I not love him enough? Is that why you took Him from me- to do a better job? To love him more?”.

Appendix 2

La Pieta by Michelangelo

Appendix 3

The Contradictions of Mary by Nicola Slee (in The Book of Mary- see bibliography)

She is sorrowful

She is not sorrowful

She is joyful

She doesn’t know how to belly laugh

She is source of all freedom

She is bound for ever in chains

She is the liberator of all who cry to her

She is a tool of oppression in the hands of the hierarchy

She is mother of all dead and living

She is no one’s mother, not mine, not yours, not even Jesus’s any more

She is virgin most pure and holy

She is defiled by corruption and abuse

She is comfort of all the afflicted and sorrowing

She keeps the afflicted reconciled to their afflictions

She is goddess, she is the face of the deity

She is transcendence, eternal salvific mystery

She is just a woman, for God’s sake:

A common-as-muck illiterate peasant

Appendix 4

Belini Pieta 1505

Rottgen Pieta (Vesperbild) late 1200s

Mother with her dead son- Kathe Kollwitz (a secular “Pieta” at Neue Wache, Berlin)

The Pieta – Drew Merritt

Bibliography

Abdou, Kelly Richman, Exploring Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, a Masterpiece of Renaissance Sculpture, 21/10/19 https://mymodernmet.com/michelangelo-pieta/ on 3/3/21

Burke, Jill, The Wordlessness of grief in Michelangelo’s Pieta, https://renresearch.wordpress.com/2020/05/29/the-wordlessness-of-grief-in-michelangelos-pieta-art-pickings-5/

Finichel, Emily A.,  “Michelangelo’s Pieta as a Tomb Monument: Patronage, Liturgy and Mourning”, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol.70, 2017, pp.862-896

Harries, Rt Revd Lord, The Pieta in Art, Museum of London Lecture 31/3/15 https://gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the pieta-in-art

Ferber, Ilit and Schwebel, V., (eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, (1st ed)., Berlin: De Gruyter,  2014, pp. 33–64.

Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, London: Pandorra, 2001.

Johnson, Elizabeth A., Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, London: Continuum, 2009

Knight, Dawn The Journey of Dawn, Blog 2013, https://wordpress.com/view/thejourneyofdawn.wordpress.com

Lawson, Anna, Pieta by Fenwick Lawson….Unique Insights from his Daughter https://stcuthbertsfinaljourney.com/2013/03/17/pieta-by-fenwick-lawson-unique-insights-from-his-daughter/ [Accessed 4th March 2021]

Lee, Revd V. and Eke, R. Dr., Is Grief a Women’s Room: Some Feminist Aspects of Practical Theology in Responding to the Death of a Life Partner, London: Amazon, 2017

O Donnell, Karen and Cross, Kate, (eds.), Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective, London: SCM, 2020

Parkes, Colin Murray and Prigerson, Holly G,. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, (4th ed),  London: Penguin, 2010

Riches, Gordon and Dawson, Pam, An Intimate Loneliness: Supporting Bereaved Parents and Siblings, Buckingham: Open University, 2000

Roscoff, Barbara D., The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, New York: Holt, 1994

Sands, Kathleen M., “Tragedy, Theology, and Feminism in the Time after Time,” in New Literary History, 35, 1, 2004, pp. 41–61.

Slee, Nicola, The Book of Mary, London: SPCK, 2007

Slee, Nicola., Porter, F and Phillips, A., (eds.), Researching Female Faith: London: Routledge, 2018

Walters, Geoff, Why do Christians Find it Hard to Grieve? Carlisle: Paternoster,1997

Weiskittle, R.E and Gramling, S.E., “The Therapeutic Effectiveness of Using Visual Art Modalities with the Bereaved: a Systematic Review”, in Psychol Res Behav Manag. 11, 2018), pp.9-24


[1] Susan Starr Sered, “Mother Love, Child Death and Religious Innovation: A Feminist Perspective”, in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 12,. 1, 1996, pp.5-23. (p.5)

[2] William, H Forsyth, “Medieval Statues of the Pieta in the Museum” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 11, 7, 1953, pp.177-184; (p.180); Anna Lawson, Pieta by Fenwick Lawson, 17 March 2013 https://stcuthbertsfinaljourney.com/2013/03/17/pieta-by-fenwick-lawson-unique-insights-from-his-daughter/ [Last accessed 21/1/21] Rt Revd Lord Harries, The Pieta in Art, Museum of London Lecture 31/3/15  https://gresham.eac.uk/lectures-and-events/the pieta-in-art [Last accessed at 3/3/21]; Kelly Richman Abdou, Exploring Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, a Masterpiece of Renaissance Sculpture, 21/10/19 [Last accessed at https://mymodernmet.com/michelangelo-pieta/ on 3/3/21]; Emily A. Finichel, “Michelangelo’s Pieta as a Tomb Monument: Patronage, Liturgy and Mourning”, in Renaissance Quarterly, 70, 1, 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/renaissance-quarterly/article/abs/michelangelos-pieta-as-tomb-monument-patronage-liturgy-and-mourning/BB4E9C30082B574BE277FB1009C6AA46  [Last accessed online 1/2/21]; Harries, The Pieta in Art; Elizabeth A. Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, London: Continuum, 2009, p.294

[3] J.Berry, “Writing the Self”, in Researching Female Faith, by Nicola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips (eds.), London: Routledge, 2018, p.207

[4] Barbara D. Roscoff, The Worse Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, New York: Holt, 1994, p.3;5; Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, London: Pandorra, 2001, p.33

[5] Gordon Riches and Pam Dawson, An Intimate Loneliness: Supporting Bereaved Parents and Siblings, Buckingham: Open University, 2000, p.64-70; Colin Murray Parkes and Holly G. Prigerson, Bereavement Studies of Grief in Adult Life (4th ed), London: Penguin, 2010, p.143; V Lee and R. Eke, Is Grief a Women’s Room? UK:Amazon:2017, p.26; Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, London: Pandorra, 2001, p.33, Sered, “Mother Love, Child Death and Religious Innovation”, p.15

[6] Santiago Pinon, “Losing a Child: A Father’s Methodological Plight” in Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective, Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross,(eds), London: SCM, 2020, p.249

[7] R.E, Weiskittle and  S.E.,Gramling, “The therapeutic effectiveness of using visual art modalities with the bereaved: a systematic review”, in Psychol Res Behav Manag., 11, 2018, pp.9-24. (p.14)

[8] Lawson, Pieta by Fenwick Lawson; Kathleen M. Sands, “Tragedy, Theology, and Feminism in the Time after Time.” In New Literary History, 35, 1, 2004, pp. 41–61, (p. 42); Gemma Simmonds, “Contemplating Mary in Art” at Fairest thou, where all art fair: Contemplating Mary in Poetry, Art and Music, http://www.walsinghamanglican.org.uk/worship/priestsanddeacons/wedsthurs [Last accessed on 3rd February 2021]

[9] Anna Magnusson, At the Foot of the Cross: The Art of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection: Pieta, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwQqWIZauul [Last accessed 21/1/21]; Abdou, Exploring Michelangelo’s “Pieta

[10] Abdou, Exploring Michelangelo’s “Pieta

[11] Harries, The Pieta in Art; Joynel Fernades, “Picturing the Passion: ‘Pieta’by Michelangelo”, in Art and Culture, 26/3/18, https://aleteia.org/2018/03/26/picturing-the-passion-pieta-by-michelangelo/  [Last accessed 21/1/21] 

[12] Jill Burke, The Wordlessness of Grief in Michelangelo’s Pieta at https://renresearch.wordpress.com/2020/05/29/the-wordlessness-of-grief-in-michelangelos-pieta-art-pickings-5/[Last accessed 3/3/21]

[13] Johnson, Truly Our Sister, p.100; 110

[14] Finichel, “Michelangelo’s Pieta as a Tomb Monument”, p.878; Fernades, “Picturing the Passion”, p.6; Burke, The Wordlessness of Grief in Michelangelo’s Pieta.

[15] Karen O’ Donnell, Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology, London: SCM, 2018, p.5; Elizabeth A. Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, London: Continuum, 2009, p.99 Sered, “Mother Love, Child Death and Religious Innovation”, pp5-23 (p.19)

[16] Sered, “Mother Love, Child Death and Religious Innovation”, p.17

[17] Acts 8:2; John 11:35

[18] Nicola Slee, The Book of Mary, London: SPCK, 2007, p.91; Sered, “Mother Love, Child Death and Religious Innovation”, p.21

[19] Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross,(eds), Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective, London: SCM, 2020, p.11; Rowan Williams, “Contemplating Mary in Poetry” at Fairest thou, where all art fair: Contemplating Mary in Poetry, Art and Music, Walsingham Lecture, http://www.walsinghamanglican.org.uk/worship/priestsanddeacons/monand tues/ 2nd February 2021 [Last accessed2/2/21]; Luke 1:46-55

[20] Geoff Walters, Why do Christians Find it Hard to Grieve? Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997,p.119

[21] Slee, The Book of Mary, London: SPCK, 2007, p.91

[22] Burke, The Wordlessness of grief in Michelangelo’s Pieta, Nancy Ross, Essay, accessed http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/medieval-europe-islamic-world/a/rottgen-pieta 08/02/21

[23] Dawn Knight, The Journey of Dawn, blog, 2013 at https://wordpress.com/view/thejourneyofdawn.wordpress.com

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