Bologna is worth a Lamentation
The only work of art worth going to Bologna to see is the terracotta group of sculpted figures
by Niccolo dell'Arca (c.1440-45-1494) called the LAMENTATION, set up now in the small
church of Santa Maria della Vita, the church of its origin.
Although not certain, the date usually given to the work is 1463. The arrangement consists of six
lifesize figures placed in location around the supine body of the Dead Christ.
Because the figures are lifesize, because they have traces of color still on the baked clay,
because they have gestures that are familiar, because they form a semicircle facing the viewer,
because they are only slightly raised up from the ground, they appear to be real human beings,
and the viewer shares their space. In fact if another group of real humans were to form
a mirror semicircle, the chapel would become a full circle of figures around the dead body
First let us identify the figures as best we can, then we will discuss why they are portrayed
as they are.
From the left:
JOSEPH of ARIMATHAEA or NICODEMUS
He is dressed as a town merchant with tools, a hammer projecting from his right hand and tongs hanging on his belt. Hammer still cocked, he kneels as though he has just completed removing the nails from Christ's hands and feet. He is the only figure who looks out at the viewer. His face, probably a portrait of the commissioner or a self-portrait of the artist, is in shock, his brow furrowed. He grabs his belt with his left hand, trying to take stock of what has happened, trying to grasp literally something to ground himself in order to understand the significance of the death he has witnessed. His rich clothing suggests he could be Joseph of Arimathaea, who donated his tomb for the body of Christ, but his tools suggest that he is Nicodemus, who was a sculptor and helped get Christ's body down from the cross. If the figure is meant to be Nicodemus, it would be appropriate for the sculptor, Niccolo dell'Arca, to want to present his namesake (both have nicknames of Nico) as himself, the sculptor of the terracotta figures we see. As such, the whole group could be seen, then, as the expiatory project of the sculptor to ensure his own immortality and afterlife.
The next individual figures:
2 MARIES - MARY, wife of Cleophas and the Virgin MARY, mother of Christ
MARY CLEOPHAS grasps the cloth of her gown in disbelief as she stares at the body. She is the wife of the brother (Cleophas) of Mary's husband (Joseph) and was thought to be the mother of John the Evangelist who is to her right in the scene.
MARY, the MADONNA, Christ's mother, clasps her hands together in anguish
and a moan escapes her open mouth as she looks down at her son:
In the center of the 4 women stands JOHN THE EVANGELIST, Christ's disciple, to whom Christ entrusted the care of his own mother:
His eyes show the swelling lids of weeping, his brow is furrowed, his face wracked with pain,
and he rests his chin on his right hand as though the weight of the moment has been too much.
The three left figures, together with John the Evangelist build a sliding diagonal of restrained emotion that stops with the vertical figure of John in contemplation,
MARY SALOME sticks both her hands out as if to ward off the danger of death to herself, to keep
from seeing the disaster of overwhelming feelings. "Let it not be true!" her hands say, as she catapults towards the truth.
Both she and MARY MAGDALENE are running toward the dead figure, with cloaks billowing out behind them as if they had just heard the news and are racing towards the others.
They both look down at Christ with their mouths open in extreme pain, the screams of mourning that people feel when learning of the death of a beloved person. We even see their teeth and wild eyes.
MARY MAGDALENE has been placed near Christ's feet because she is always associated in the
Renaissance with the woman who anointed Christ's feet with oil at the house of Simon the Pharisee.
The pressing of the drapery on her figure in front and the motion of the drapery behind her are not this powerfully rendered again by a sculptor until Bernini in the 17th century. She is the most extraordinary of the figures and expresses her grief in the most dramatic way. Her passionate love
is so visible and forthright and her extreme pain so remarkably sculpted that the viewer finds it hard
to look at anyone else in the group.
joined in crying (Piangere the verb in Italian) over Christ after he's been crucified. The mourning of the group is meant to stimulate the feelings of mourning in the viewers of the work so that they, too,
join in the grief, in the co-crying. He has so powerfully rendered, in terracotta, figures in the extreme
stages of grief, that he has made a crescendo from left to right of sound, motion, feeling, and rhythm that effects a pure catharsis for the viewer of the drama.
On learning that Santa Maria della Vita housed a group