Depositions, descents from the cross and pietas are standard visual language at this point. The act of removing Christ from the cross or of Mary holding the dead, adult Christ or burying Him were Western standards and have been secularized over the centuries and reworked into any dramatic narrative involving one living human body cradling another, deceased body.
I’m sure it happens every year but my go-to reference is from my late junior high years when Robin died in the Batman: A Death in the Family series. The cover is pure pieta. Really if you just Google image search “comic book pieta” and look under the Images tab, you’ll see how deep it goes just in that format. This is not shocking. What better language to borrow for comic books than European Christian art, particularly the Baroque? No one is trying to hide this. Consider this advertising campaign for the Netflix series, Daredevil. Be it through Apple or Pinterest or books about scaling down and being minimal, you’d think we live in some streamlined age of bare necessity and elegance but, everything about our popular culture screams, “Baroque!” Endless superhero movies and bloated TV series that demand hours upon hours of ourselves to find any kind of resolution. This compositional choice is embedded in our memory bank and when you see it, even if you’re not Christian, you probably get it. You don’t need to consciously get it, but part of your brain understands that a loss of epic proportions has occurred.
I have favorites within this genre. I would imagine that they are no different than most other people’s favorites. I have seen about half of these in person: Rogier van der Weyden, Enguerrand Quarton, Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, Giotto, El Greco and Michelangelo.
The El Greco painting is the one that I have spent the most time with. I dusted it every week for 5 years. It’s a beautiful gem, roughly 11.5x8”. You could hold a piece of typing paper in your hand or you could hold this El Greco. I love it because of its mystery and honestly, because it lacks the level of sorrow and weight that most of the others listed above possess. It has less weight. It is lighter and more poetic. Don’t get me wrong: he’s dead but the weight of the body is not fully there. If you just look at his legs, they look alive, almost in motion. They’re propped against rocks for support, but the rocks don’t seem necessary. You have Mary, distraught and looking into the distance but she’s not shouldering much of the weight. Mary Salome (?) and John or Joseph of Arimethea(?) are doing the work. John/Joseph even appears to be removing the crown of thorns in an act of delicate, loving care. His figure is heavy and dark compared to the rest. He seems more burdened by it all. There is a beautiful violet/pink cloud rolling off on the right, revealing a deep blue sky. Is it the cloud that brought darkness to Jerusalem during the crucifixion? That hovered above while the earth quaked and the temple curtain was split down the middle? If so, the El Greco does not interpret it as a colorless, black mass but instead as a vibrant display of heavenly power.
Strangely this is not a typical El Greco in that it is not as tonal as you’d expect from him. His masterworks are grisaille paintings with color glazed on top. Those pieces sit there in a hallucinatory way that few would see again until black-and-white movies were colorized. This Lamentation was warm from the beginning and carried through to the top layers.
The composition appears indebted to a late Deposition of Michelangelo’s. OK, so it’s probably a deposition. It might be a pieta. It might be both. Apparently, people really argue about this. It’s Mary holding her dead son. Are you really going to sweat whether it is at the foot of the cross or the opening to the tomb? We’re not sure who the man is. It might be Joseph of Arimethea or it might be Nicodemus. Whoever you think it is determines how you interpret the piece. If you think it’s Nicodemus, then you interpret the face as a self-portrait on Michelangelo’s part and it is a way of tipping his hat to a return to his faith in his later years as well. All of this is interesting but if you just appreciate Michelangelo and you’re a Christian, you don’t really need all of this to be completely floored by it when you see it in person.
It’s a similar triangular composition to the El Greco but, the placement of figures is different. You could argue that El Greco based his work off of this. Christ is in the middle and he looks much more possessed of weight than in the El Greco. Those legs are not dancing. They are collapsed. His left arm is so contorted that no living person would voluntarily rest it in that position. Once again though, no one seems to be stressed out. The Magdalene figure is stoic, rigid, seemingly indebted to Michelangelo’s Renaissance schooling as much as the medieval period. Michelangelo is a bridge. He knows antiquity, he knows the medieval, he is the Renaissance, but he is the Baroque as well. His later works would be considered mashups by contemporary standards. He lives long enough to shake off who people think he is and to defy their expectations of him.
The relationship of Christ’s head to Mary’s head is one of the most tender creations in European art history. The way his head rests on her cheek is simultaneously a pieta and a traditional Madonna and Child. It is a dead, adult Christ and an infant Jesus all in one shot. Her face is unresolved, but her eyes appear to be closed and the rough rendering of her mouth is that of a smile. It’s not a joyful smile. Contextually it has a quality of knowing that someone is finally at peace. You could say that I’m reading too much into it but y’all are the ones that have been writing books about Mona Lisa’s smile for 200 years. Nicodemus/Joseph/Michelangelo places his hand on Mary’s back to brace her and grabs Jesus’ right arm with his right hand. Mary Magdalene places her free arm on Nicodemus/Joseph’s leg, presumably for stability. Everyone is joined. Everyone touches Christ and everyone is connected to everyone else.
All of this is poised to drag your heart around on an emotional rollercoaster when you see it in Florence. The Duomo Museum does not do what you would expect it to do with a Michelangelo. They don’t take a massive room and isolate it to allow for massive crowds to fill in 20’ deep in front of it like you would expect. Instead, you hit the top of a stairwell and it is sitting, by itself in a small recessed space that has just enough room to hold it and to allow people in single file to walk around it or stand in front of it. It is you and Michelangelo and that is it. It is not arranged for spectacle like the Mona Lisa. The museum really wants you to have an experience with it, to connect. There is nothing else to do but look at it, to see it hover above you as you come up the stairs and then be confronted with absolute loss. This is the burden that someone drawing a Batman comic assumes when he or she switches out the characters but tries to maintain the drama.
As a Christian, I look at this motif and I look for knowledge from the artist that this is simultaneously the worst and greatest thing that has happened in the history of humanity. This is the partial fulfillment of prophecy and one of the final steps of the fulfillment of a covenant, set into motion millennia prior. That’s the intention of people that work with these themes in a sincere way. I get that. That’s what I look for first. But I also can’t help thinking about when I accidentally ended up in my own pieta situation in kindergarten.
For those of you born much later than me, this is a jungle gym. It is not a Sol Lewitt sculpture, but I’ve never seen one of those sculptures without thinking of a jungle gym. As best I can tell, these were used as early as the 1940s and lasted at least until the 1980s. I don’t know when they would have been deinstalled because once I outgrew the use for playgrounds, I stopped going to them until I had a child of my own. Otherwise, in case you don’t know, if you’re at a playground and you are not a child or a guardian, then you, my friend, are creepy and need to leave.
My elementary school in North Carolina had a jungle gym similar to this but in my kindergarten memories, the one that Wells Elementary had was at least one block taller and seemed deeper and harder to get to the middle. My kindergarten year introduced me to this school. Things to know about Wells Elementary: 1) at the time, in the late 70s, high school kids were the school bus drivers. Try to imagine a 17-year-old driving a school bus today. It might still happen in less densely populated areas, but it seems unthinkable to me now. If I remember correctly, this policy was changed when a couple of drivers were caught racing one another. I remember that the engine of our bus caught on fire in the school parking lot one day and we all had to jump out the back. Now imagine a 17-year-old being responsible for making a bunch of elementary school kids jump of the back of a smoking bus. 2) For some reason, the interior hallway doors that led to the cafeteria were screen doors like you would find on the patio at your house. 3) I passed out while standing on the bleachers in the auditorium while practicing for the Christmas music presentation. I was on the top bleacher and I fell forward onto every kid in front of me. Don’t lock your knees, kids. 4) I found a crayon in the grass one day and wrote my name all over the porch of the school because it was probably the only thing that I knew how to write at that point in kindergarten. It wasn’t hard to track down the culprit and make me clean it up. 5) In first grade we could take 45s to play on my teacher’s record player before school. I have no idea why, but I was obsessed with Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” and would manage to play it everyday until I assume everyone had enough of it and never let me play it again.
But back to the jungle gym. One day, during PE, I climbed up to the top of the interior of this jungle gym and then proceeded to fall down. If you look at the photo of the jungle gym, you might notice that there is not a lot of room to fall, unmolested from the top to the bottom. Judging by my experience, there is no room for that at all. When you slip, you fall backwards, so your head hits a bar. Your feet hit the one that is opposite. Your arms instinctively try to grab for something, which sends them out of control hitting other bars on the side. Your head/face hits another bar as you fall. Your legs and arms hit a variety of spots, forcing your body to flip over and back and forth, throwing your head and face into as many pieces of metal as you can hit in the 1.5 seconds it probably takes to finally hit the ground. Congratulations, you are now on the ground. The live action game of pinball is over. Let’s assess the damage. You’re bleeding. A lot. From the head and the face. For some reason, your arms are scraped up and bleeding. There is no blood on your legs, but they were sweaty. That might not seem like a bad thing but you’re thinking of a 2019 playground with rubber flooring and/or 12” of mulch to cushion that fall. But that’s not it. This is 40 years ago. What broke your fall in 1979? Sand. A pile of sand. You know what sand sticks to? Sweat and blood. Let’s step back and take a look at this scene. You have suffered a head injury among varying other bodily injuries yet to be identified. You are covered in blood, sweat and sand…and you are still stuck in the middle of a jungle gym. No one is getting you out of there at the speed you need.
My teacher was probably in her late 20s or early 30s, but I was 5 so she seemed 45 to me. Her nickname was/is Honeybun. I swear, I thought that was her real name until my mom told me otherwise just 4-5 years ago. Honeybun must have crawled in there and removed me from the jungle gym because I can guarantee you that I didn’t get up and walk out. She no doubt saw the mess that was my body and decided to not wait until the school nurse could come to her but instead to take me and find the nurse. Honeybun picked me up, cradling me under my knees and, unfortunately, my neck instead of my head and ran into the school to the nurse’s office. The nurse was not in the nurse’s office. The nurse was in a 3rd grade room probably administering a fluoride treatment or something. My head was pitched back completely, so I could see (upside-down) immediately to the right of Honeybun. We bounced down the hallway at a jarring, uncomfortable speed for someone that has just received massive head and possibly neck trauma. Honeybun ran into the 3rd grade room and stood in front of the class because that is where the nurse was standing at the time. I picked up my head and rolled it to the right and saw 25 3rd graders looking at me in absolute horror. Horror. Shock. Pity. Hopelessness. I was a pieta. But a pieta in Buster Brown shoes.
My faith would coalesce a few years later. The heart of the pieta, deposition, lamentation, etc would be revealed to me as I got older and these works of art would take on substantial meaning. That’s a blessing because, if not for that, I might look at a Michelangelo or El Greco and never really see anything other than Honeybun and me and some freshly-flourided 3rd graders and Batman. Honestly, that’s not too bad but the other way is richer and more in keeping with the original intention of the art. Otherwise, I might just be some guy that climbed a flight of stairs in Florence, saw a sculpture and thought, “Honeybun”, chuckled and moved on.