This Is My Body

The Roettgen Pietà

The Roettgen Pietà (Vesperbild), polychromed willow or poplar, 89cm, ca. 1360, Landesmuseum, Bonn


The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.

In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it's an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue's emotional import.

The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life's end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed. Continue reading….

Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. AF says

    Along the same lines, one of my favorite Christian paintings is Hans Holbein the Younger's The Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb (which may have been influenced by Grünewald's altarpiece you mentioned). I have always liked it because Christ is dead, not sleeping, not angelic, dead and starting blankly up with mouth ajar. It certainly drives home the point that Christ suffered and died.

  2. Laura K says

    You know, looking at the resurrection panel, my firt thought was 'wow, THAT's where the Hildebrandt brothers got their style…'

  3. says

    You're right that the Brothers Hildebrandt, Darrell K. Sweet, and similar calendar and cover artists in the fantasy genre can point to northern Renaissance art as their model or antecedent. Consider, for example, the fantastical beasts and monsters attacking St. Anthony on the panel that covers the resurrection scene when the altarpiece is fully open. They symbolize temptation, but it's clear that the artist has a passion for imagination, recombination, whimsy, and wonder. And Hieronymous Bosch was at work in the same era!

  4. says

    Wow, great stuff. Just as an aside, the "substitutional" sacrifice is kind of a mathematics idea: it's a redemption, meaning a payment that is due. The payment due is infinite, so man cannot pay it. Only God can pay it FOR man, and he does that by becoming man, while remaining God, and suffering death. Which is impossible, of course, except that it makes weird sense.

    Vox Day had a post the other day about how religion is almost a necessary predicate for good art, so I'm going to post a link to this post over there.

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful post, though. Thanks.

  5. says

    Not quite the entry I expected…but very interesting! I think what gives me the chills about all of those examples is the presence of death. Even Michelangelo's Pieta, in all its beauty, has an inescapable truth to it. Whatever your belief, Man or God, that is a dead body she is holding. Having carried large dead bodies (animal) I recognize that Michelangelo, or the German artist, understood the way muscle relaxes after death. In today's sanitized world, death has an unreality to it, a lack of physical presence. The Pietas and Crucifixions of the medieval period don't shy from death nor from the reaction of the living to the dead. Modern popular culture shows plenty of immediately dead bodies, it shows very few Pietas, very few Memento Mori.

  6. F says

    In the Isenheim Altarpiece resurrection/ascension bit, at the lower resolution, it looks like Jesus is snapping his fingers and has a facial expression of an open-mouthed, smiling, "Oooooo," possibly just preceding a "yeah".

  7. IGotBupkis, Three Time Winner of the Silver Sow Award says

    A nice little trivia question, fwiw, is that The Pieta by Michelangelo is the only sculpture he ever signed.

  8. Rich Rostrom says

    I'm neither artistic nor religious – but wow! What a fascinating post. The interplay between art, theology, technology, and regional culture…