La Piedad

Essay by Courtney Sisk

“Pity,” the direct translation of the Italian world Pietà, is an easily understood literary choice when connected with the well-known imagery associated with the theme of the Virgin Mary cradling the limp body of the Crucified Jesus. It represents one of the final cycles of the Life of Christ before His Resurrection. Different artists have clung to the theme in their religious works of art, although there is no direct literary source in which this theme, or the title associated with it, has developed. From Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture of Pietà, housed within the Mother Church of Saint Peter’s Basilica, to the less academic examples of the theme, Pietà has imbedded itself as a vital subject in religious art; even more generously so in the Mexican Retablos. The NMSU collection includes twelve retablos of La Piedad clearly representing the Mexican-Catholic influence on the traditional imagery.

Representation of the Pietà are often repetitive in nature with a triangular centralized composition of the seated Virgin Mary holding in her lap the lifeless body of Her Son covered in blood against a hilly landscape with a cross and the instruments of the passion (fig. 1). The cloth wrapped around Christ’s waist blends into the flowing fabric of the sudarium. Mary’s royal blue cloak blends with the green background contrasting with the red tunic. Her grief is shown by holding on her right hand the crown of thorns, while her sorrow is represented by a single sword piercing her heart.

The focus on this image are on the wounds of Christ and on the grief and pain of Virgin Mary. The wounds are symbolic of human suffering and the redemption of sin from His death. Other symbols representing the crucifixion of Christ are the inclusion of the Instruments of the Passion, which surround the grieving Mother and Christ as reminders Christ’s power over Satan. The included tools in this retablo are the Crown of Thorns, nails, hammer, the ladder used for the Deposition of Christ, the Holy Lance, the Holy Sponge, and the whips used for Christ’s flagellation. Other symbols related to the Crucifixion are the sun and moon, painted at the top of the composition, representing the eclipse which occurred during His death. The inclusion of the rooster on the left side of the composition refers to the repentance of Saint Peter for denying Christ three times with the rooster crowing at each denial. The warm-color palette of the retablo accentuates the blood of Christ, as well as the additional symbolic elements.

Another unique representation of the Pietà is found in Figure 2, where the triangular representation of the bodies is focused mainly on the upper body of Christ strewn across the lap of the Virgin Mary. The skillful painting with color modulations and proportions help the viewers’ eyes to focus on the agony of the faces of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Her royal blue robe drapes through most of the composition, while her handles cradle the head of the dead Christ and seemingly clutch her heart. Christ’s face expresses pain through his furrowed brows and tilted neck. Again, the emphasis on his wounds is shown through the representation of blood covering his shoulders and the chest stigmata. The softness of this painting adds to the imbedded elements of sorrow, along with the removal of excess symbology and background imagery, focusing solely on the relationship between the Mother and the Son.

The use of gold and darkened colors provides a more intense depiction of Mary’s sorrow (fig. 3). In this composition, gold paint emphasizes Mary’s tunic and mantle borders, as well as the handle of the sword piercing her heart. A lighted halo illuminates from behind her head emphasizing her divinity. The bloody sudarium around Christ’s body and the Five Precious Wounds are emphsized on his extended body. The artist chose to represent the nails, ladders, and the rooster from the Instruments of the Passion. These symbols are incorporated in the composition filled with natural landscape. The cool toned color palette creates a darker mood and allows the viewer to focus on Mary mourning the death of Her Son.

Figure 1. Pietà/La Piedad

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 13 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1969.3.41.

Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey.

Figure 2. Pietà/La Piedad

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 10 x 7”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.14.

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.

Figure 3. Pietà/Piedad

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.15.

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.


Giffords, Gloria Fraser and Yvonne Lange. The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico. Fort Worth, TX: InterCultura, 1991.

Hall, J. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc, 1974.

“Pietà.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., [ii]. Vol. 1. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed March 3, 2019).

Schiller, Gertrud. Iconography of Christian Art. London, England: Lund Humphries, 1971.

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil and Charles Muir Lovell, ed.  Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.