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Our Lady of Sorrows or Pietà (1876)
William-Aldolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
The mystery of the Virgin Mary has captivated artists from the very beginning of Christian art. Silent, she witnesses the life of her Son, fully aware of who he is and what he is here to do. In catacomb paintings, she remains enigmatically distant as her Son turns away from her towards the viewer. In icons, she is a wide-eyed, small-mouthed regal throne for Christ, while in the Italian Renaissance she is a melancholy beauty tenderly cradling her infant. 19th-century painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau had his work cut out for him as he set out to represent Mary in the wake of almost two thousand years of imagery, with perhaps a greater challenge of depicting the sacred in an increasingly secularized world.
Bouguereau’s works were the swan song of history painting. The most successful painter of his age, he was principally admired for his idealized nudes, featuring luminous, languid nymphs in magical settings. These were well-suited to an age given to eroticism and decadence; but the great revolution that would wrest art away from the figurative and incarnational to the abstract and individual was already underway. As a leader of the French Academy of Art, he personified “the enemy” in the eyes of the avant-garde Salon des Refusés, which began in 1863 with the exhibition of Édouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur L’Erbe and other works that had been rejected by the more traditional Paris Salon. Bouguereau’s contemporary, Gustave Courbet, was already successfully picking away at ideals, traditions, and institutions in art with his great successes like The Stonebreakers, and Claude Monet would revolutionize painting in 1874 with his Impression: Sunrise. Bouguereau lived long enough to hear himself mocked by cutting-edge painters such as Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who would ultimately change the public perception of art.
Despite being a practicing Catholic, Bouguereau produced only sixty-five sacred paintings, a mere eight percent of his total oeuvre. Up until his fiftieth year, his religious output involved some chapel decoration, and a few allegorical images and bucolic Holy Families. In 1875, however, Bouguereau’s sixteen-year-old son Georges died. This pietà, painted at the same time as his Virgin of Comfort, is one of his most moving works, where the artist struggles with his faith and the pain of the loss of his eldest son.
His years in Rome, capital of the Catholic world, are evident in the composition of the painting. The oval form recalls the mandorlas (“almonds”) that traditionally surround sacred figures in medieval altarpieces. The angels’ poses recall the mourning messengers in Giotto’s Crucifixion, especially the sharply foreshortened one overhead. The gentle pattern of colors in the draperies ranges from goldenrod to periwinkle to olive to teal, forming a misty rainbow around Mary and Jesus. As in Romanesque art, the rainbow also alludes to the covenant which God made with Noah after the Great Flood, the covenant that is now perfected in the sacrifice of Christ. Bright gold halos, fallen out of use in the art of the industrial age, also add to the slightly anachronistic character of the work.
Bouguereau broke with Italian tradition by placing a dark void at the core of the painting. Mary is not only seated at the mouth of the cave, but seems cavernous herself sunken under her ink-blue mantle. The depths of the pictorial space bring fear and uncertainty. The Blessed Virgin only adds to the enigma. Her face is deeply recessed under the folds of her veil, her expression ambiguous. Does she stare accusingly at the viewer, or do her eyes turn heavenward? Is her sorrow directed towards us or the Lord? The red- rimmed eyes belie the composure of Mary in Michelangelo’s Pietà. The body of Bouguereau’s Christ seems identical to Michelangelo’s, but where the sculptor carved Mary offering her son to the altar, the painter chose to depict her clasping him tightly.
Bouguereau molds his masterpiece by respecting the earlier genius yet remaining firmly rooted in his own age. Like Michelangelo, Bouguereau focuses on Mary. Jesus is luminous and beautiful, but Mary transfixes us. But, as a bereft father, Bouguereau reveals a last great combat in the story of salvation: the battle with grief. Darkness seems to overwhelm the Mother of God, and an abyss gapes behind her; the danger of giving in to loss and suffering looms large. Bouguereau’s Mary, however, retains the powerful compositional pyramid used by Michelangelo; while darkness closes in, she remains steadfast.
In his Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted a gloomy cave of demons to frame the altar crucifix, a vivid reminder of Jesus’ salvific sacrifice. Similarly, Bouguereau’s Mary, holding the body of Christ at the door of the tomb, shows us—the viewers—our shield from death. Christ’s covenant for the salvation of man is held by the ark—his Mother—to proclaim victory over death. His limp hand points down to the shining urn and bowl, ostensibly used to cleanse the body, but also symbolic of humanity’s renewal. The crown of thorns—the pains of our losses, errors, and sins—lies cast away on the blood-spattered shroud. We are ransomed; it is time to start anew.
Bouguereau took one more leaf from the Renaissance painter’s handbook. The low vantage point of the viewer, not standing before the Mother and Son, but apparently prostrate before them, helps the viewer to identify with his devastation, splayed on the hard stones, gazing up towards the light of hope.
Like his great Renaissance predecessors, Bouguereau could take tragedy and brutality, pain and remorse, and transpose them into beauty. “One has to seek Beauty and Truth,” he would claim towards the end of his life, defending his decision to continue to paint in his increasingly outmoded style in the face of immense pressure from the public to turn to the impressionist, the divisionist, and the abstract. At the time of his death, the only patrons that remained faithful to him were his American collectors. Bouguereau, the last bastion of the beauty of the Incarnation, would soon slip into oblivion, only to be resurrected a century later by a world hungry for Truth and Beauty.
Elizabeth LevWriter and professor of art history in Rome, Italy
Our Lady of Sorrows or Pietà (1876), William-Aldolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Private Collection. © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images
There Is But One Single Love!
Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Here is a sketch of the Good Shepherd, drawn by Maurice Denis in 1903 as a study for a fresco. It confirms that a work of art is not just the result of brilliant improvisation: it must first sink its roots in the rich soil of a profound culture before, as the culmination of long labor, it bears its fruit. Maurice Denis here took inspiration from the Hebraic and Greco–Latin “Evangelical Preparation”: his Good Shepherd is a young man, like a youthful David, the figure of the shepherd of Israel. His pose and garment, however, are drawn from the Greek image of Hermes kriophoros, bearing a lamb in his arms. Note the detailed work of the musculature, as though this were a preparatory sketch for an ancient sculpture. What a contrast with the definitive fresco, in which the drawing is almost an expression of the ligne claire (simple lines) style!
Adorning the arch that opens into the Sacred Heart chapel, this Good Shepherd is a companion piece to the Good Samaritan opposite, the two parables that frame the new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you! Through this composition, the art- ist intends to show that the love of God for us, our love of others, and our love of God, are all hues of one and the same rainbow lighting up heaven and earth. And indeed, as our incarnate God is clearly our Good Shepherd and our Good Samaritan, he was just as much the condemned lamb and the traveler left for dead. And he will be so until the end of time, trusting in our love through his sole commandment.
What, then, can we say of ourselves, we who are clearly the lamb and the traveler? Does not the grace we are given to be able to love one another as God has loved us make us Good Shepherd and Good Samaritan for one another? And, ever since the Incarnation, “one another” includes God. To the extent that, according to both Saint John and Saint Paul, to love God in deed and in truth means, existentially, to love one another as Jesus loved us. Thus, in the new and eternal covenant, there is but one single commandment, for there is but one single Love.
The Good Shepherd (c. 1902-1903), Maurice Denis (1870-1943), The Fine Arts Museum of imoges, France. © RMN-GP (musée d'Orsay) / Tony Gerrec.