• Beyond the Canvas

Niccolò dell'Arca's Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1463) - Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna

Updated: Sep 14

"This Christ will never be forgotten. Was it made from earth? Was it rotting flesh? I didn’t know what the medium was […] The three Marys enraged by suffering, demented by the suffering […]. Can you imagine the petrified scream?’ - Gabriele d’Annunzio (1924)


Remember the last time you saw an enraged, demented Mary? No, me neither. And that's because, with the Compianto sul Cristo Morto, Nicolò dell'Arca did the unthinkable. He took a sacred subject and then proceeded to treat its protagonists like human beings. I believe this is, quite simply, a thoroughly revolutionary representation of universal pain in the way we all know it.


While the men (Joseph of Arimathea and John the Baptist) are numb and don't seem to know quite what to do, the Marys take centre stage by displaying the wildest array of emotions. The mother of Christ (2nd left) is bent by sorrow, leaning to one side as if she's about to break. Her hands are not clasped in prayer, they are firmly squeezed against each other in agony. And what of Mary of Salonne (1st left) who's digging her fingernails in her thighs to contain an even bigger outburst? Mary of Cleophas (2nd right) is stretching her arms forwards not wanting to see the corpse of Christ. Look at Mary Magdalene (1st right), eyes swollen with tears, whose gaping mouth emits perhaps the most piercing scream. She seems ready to throw herself on top of the dead body. So. Much. Pathos.


As it's often the case, dall'Arca's revolution came too soon and couldn't be fully appreciated. The hospital this was made for rejected the work on the grounds that it scared the patients (maybe they had a point), so the statues ended up in an niche before eventually being relegated to a place near the food market. Worth remembering that this powerful and groundbreaking (originally polychrome) terracotta masterpiece was created 200 years before Gian Lorenzo Bernini showed the world how marble could be used to capture emotions in motion.


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Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna

Photos all mine.

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