The art essay

Pietà (1865) by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–1875)

The hidden side of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux

Better known at the time for his public monuments and official portraits, Carpeaux offers us in this pulsating sketch a deeply moving meditation on the Passion. Below the glass case where this one-foot-high sculpture is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the caption reads: “Terracotta, 1865. Executed in fifteen minutes.” We can easily imagine the sculptor’s fingers running up and down the block of clay with unabashed speed, the figures of Mary and Jesus coming to life at the touch of his hand. What we look at, however, is not a study meant to prepare a more polished and definitive work. We are looking at the actual sculpture.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–1875) made a name for himself at the court of Napoleon III, his virtuoso skills earning him numerous commissions, including a series of public contributions to Paris’ parks and monuments. These works assured the artist’s fame and revenue. However, his heart and originality are best revealed in impromptu works the sculptor made frenetically in the secret of his studio (which they hardly ever left), with no other purpose than creation itself. Often religious in nature, Carpeaux’s drawings and terracottas, such as the Pietà we are looking at, are infused with a sense of tragedy and a longing for redemption.

The pietà : a meditation on Holy Saturday

While chronologically set on Good Friday before the burial of Jesus, the pietà belongs theologically to Holy Saturday—this mysterious hiatus between the Death of Jesus and his Resurrection. When we think of Holy Saturday, the scene that may come to our mind is the one depicted in the Eastern icons of the Anastasis, focusing on Jesus’ glorious descent into hell to raise Adam and Eve and proclaim his victory to the dead (see 1 Pt 3:18-20). The Western tradition, on the other hand, focused its contemplation of Holy Saturday on the dead body of Jesus lying in his Mother’s arms, thus pointing toward a more sorrowful interpretation of the mystery, attuned to the mournful emptiness of the Latin liturgy on that day, the only day of the year when the Eucharist is neither celebrated nor received, and when churches are stripped of their images. The realism and pathos of the pietà, a tearful widow mourning the death of her only Son, is nonetheless pregnant with a profound theological meaning. Carpeaux’s work differs strikingly from the stillness and solemnity that most artists have emphasized in their depictions of the scene. Mary embraces the body of the Lord with a lover’s passion. The scene is intimate (it has no other witness than the viewer himself) and somewhat sensual, Mary pressing her face against the face of Jesus. The Virgin’s face, torn by pain, exudes grief and lamentation. Her hair, like tears, flows freely upon the face of the Crucified. More than the gravitas of the Mater Dolorosa, she evokes the youthful passion of the bride in the Song of Songs: I opened to my lover—/ but my lover had departed, gone./ I sought him but I did not find him;/ I called to him but he did not answer me (Sg 5:6). As Christ “descends into hell,” Mary’s soul too is “sinking” to a place of darkness.

Mary as the bride of Christ

Meditating on the thirteenth Station of the Cross, the poet Paul Claudel wrote: “At this point, the Passion ends and the Compassion continues.” Prophesied by Simeon (And you yourself a sword will pierce!), Mary’s participation in her Son’s Passion has been a focus of Christian theology and iconography from very early on. Noble and moving as it may be, a mother’s participation in the agony of her son is, in and of itself, something natural. Carpeaux’s Pietà embraces this human dimension of the event, and as such it pays homage to the sacrificial love given by mothers throughout the ages. However, it also points to the supernatural dimension of the event, and to Mary’s unique contribution to the Lord’s Passion, and therefore to our redemption. It is almost impossible to think of the pietà without remembering Michelangelo’s sculpture at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux himself had the Florentine’s masterpiece in mind. The artist lived in Rome, at the Villa Medici, from 1856 to 1861, a sojourn that would leave him with a lifelong devotion to Michelangelo. Despite their obvious differences, the two pietàs have something in common: the youthfulness of Mary and her sensual as well as spiritual beauty. Both contemplated in her the bride of Christ more than his Mother. Saint Irenaeus saw in Mary the New Eve given to Jesus, the New Adam, whose obedience redeemed the disobedience and fall of the first Eve.

Unfolding a visual metaphor

This profound theological truth finds a visual metaphor in the unpolished clay of Carpeaux’s terracotta. After all, the name Adam comes from the Hebrew adamah, which means “red earth, ground.” What’s more, as the first Eve was taken from the side of the first Adam, the New Adam was taken from the substance of the New Eve, formed in her womb, and therefore it is fitting that they would be made of the same clay. Artists have often made visual parallels between the Nativity and the pietà, highlighting in both instances the physical contact of the two bodies as a sign or sacrament of their spiritual communion. Finally, the omnipresent fingerprints of the artist on the pellets of clay remind us that the mystery of the pietà and of Holy Saturday, tragic as they are, are the work of the Father, and that Mary’s essential contribution lies in her faith, that is, in her loving surrender into the Father’s hands. Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel (Jer 18:6).

Father Paul Anel Ministers to artists in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y


 Pietà (1865), Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–1875), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y.

Public domain