Middle Rhine (Mainz?)
Walnut, remnants of original polychromy, partially supplemented
Height 80 cm
Figural groups with the dead Christ deposed from the cross and lying on the lap of his grieving mother Mary were popular in the fourteenth century. The English word for them is pietà, the Italian word for »pity«, whereas the German word, Vesperbild, derives from the Latin vespera, or »evening.« It thus refers to the Christian evening prayer, the vesper, which recalls Christ’s deposition from the cross and the lamentation of his corpse. Pietàs played an important role. However, they dispensed with the specific circumstances described in the Bible. In the Frankfurt group, only the skull and bones at the foot of the mound of earth on which the Virgin Mary is sitting recall the place where Christ was crucified: Golgotha, »place of a skull«.
Pietàs thus have a symbolic rather than a narrative character, and they serve as reminders of more than just a specific historical event. As Mary holds the flayed, blood-covered body of her son before her, she presents it to the viewers. They are called upon to observe precisely. They are supposed to comprehend all the events of the Passion and empathize with Christ’s suffering; that also explains the name pietà. They are supposed to feel pity as demonstrated by the Virgin. Her facial expressions speak volumes. The showing of Christ’s body also recalls the priest’s exhibition of the host at Mass to illustrate the idea that the body of Christ is identical with the host.
Another level of meaning is conveyed by the visible reduction in Christ’s size, serving to turn the viewers’ thoughts to the Christ Child. As a result, contemplation of the corpse also reminds us that Christ was born to redeem people of their sins through his death. The sculpture thus succinctly summarizes the entire Christian story of salvation.