Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Illustrating Miracles -- The Miracle of the Woman Bent Over

 I am re-posting this article as a kind of commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the day that really changed my life, June 30, 2018.

James Tissot, Jesus Healing the Woman
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

“Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath.
And a woman was there who for eighteen years
had been crippled by a spirit;
she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.
When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said,
“Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.”
He laid his hands on her,
and she at once stood up straight and glorified God.
But the leader of the synagogue,
indignant that Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,
said to the crowd in reply,
“There are six days when work should be done.
Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites!
Does not each one of you on the Sabbath
untie his ox or his ass from the manger
and lead it out for watering?
This daughter of Abraham,
whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now,
ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day
from this bondage?”
When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated;
and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.”

Luke 13:10-17

Although I usually focus on the iconography related to those passages of Scripture that are read as part of the Sunday liturgies, this quotation, which is read during the Mass for Monday, October 26 caught my eye.  It has a very personal connection. 

For almost six months during 2018 I was the woman “bent over, completely incapable of standing erect”.  After a dozen years of growing discomfort in walking, caused by the narrowing of the canal through which the spinal cord runs, I arose on the morning of June 30, 2018 unable to stand up.  In order to move around at all, I had to bend at a 900 angle and even that was terribly painful.  Attempting to stand straight was impossible.  Bed rest didn’t help, nor did the medication suggested by the emergency room doctors.  My physiotherapist refused to touch me for fear of causing more damage. 

Healing of the Bent Woman
From Sacra parallela by John of Damascus
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 850-900
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 923, fol. 212
This healing is the third one down the page.  We see the healing of a blind man and of the man with the withered hand as well.

Because of the terrible timing (the week of the July 4 holiday) it took nearly two weeks before I could see an appropriate doctor and begin the process of determining what had gone so wrong.  After several MRIs and ordinary x-rays it was obvious that he cause was a herniated disk in my lower back.  The disk had collapsed and the vertebra above had slipped over the one below.  Surgery was suggested to deal with that as well as to free the terribly pinched nerve just below the collapse.  It took me months more to find a surgeon I trusted and to get clearance for the surgery.  Finally, on December 12, 2018 I had the operation to remove the collapsed disk, replace it with an intervertebral disk, place bone grafts and a titanium rod in support, and screw the whole thing together, as well as to cut out a section of bone where the nerve was being squeezed. 

Healing of the Bent Woman
From Orationes of Gregory Nazainzenus
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 879-882
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 510, fol. 310v
This image records several miracles of Christ (the man with the withered hand, the woman bent over and the woman with the long period of bleeding) and his parable of the fig tree.

Since then I have been working on recovery.  Having one’s back taken apart and screwed back together is a serious business.  The road has been long, and unfortunately interrupted by the restrictions on movement that have accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, but ever since the first week of recovery I have been able to stand straight once again. 

Fig Tree Parable and Healing of the Bent Woman
From the Gospels of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 175v

All of this has made me alert to this story of Jesus’ healing of the “bent woman”.  I strongly identify with her and have often reflected on how terrible her life must have been for the eighteen long years she was unable to stand.  How difficult it must have been to live with that condition but without very much available to help her to deal with it.  A story told me by my mother about one of her aunts (my great-aunt) also resonates.  My great-aunt suffered a vertebral slippage in her 40s and remained like that, bent double, for the rest of her life.  This happened in the 1920s in rural Ireland.  There was little that anyone could do for her or for the pain she must have endured.  And so it has been for many thousands of years.  I am truly fortunate that I live at a time in which there is something that can be done, even though the surgery brings its own set of woes.  But I had the opportunity to use a rolling walker to help support my walking, I had the use of ice bags and heating pads, modern pain killers and the use of a TENS unit to help with the pain.  In first century Palestine, and in every other location until quite recently, such things were unimaginable.

Claes Brouwer, Jeus Heals the Woman Bent Over and the Parable of the Fig Tree
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1420
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38 II, fol. 170r

At the time I was afflicted, I posted some comments regarding my problem on this blog.  In searching for some images to use (after all, this is a blog about art) I discovered that these seemed to be virtually non-existent.  I used the two or three I found and resolved to do some more digging later.  Noting that the reading for October 26th is the passage that refers to this healing, the time seemed ripe.  I began the search.

Philips Galle After Anthonie Blocklandt, Christ Heals a Crippled Woman
From the Series Six Scenes with Christ and Women from the Gospels
Flemish, c. 1577-1579
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

The less than handful of images I found in 2018-2019 came from two totally different eras, two from the high middle ages and one from the late nineteenth century.  In my search this year I uncovered a few more, the majority of them coming from the period stretching from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries.  Perhaps this two-hundred-year period, with its nearly constant wars within Europe, saw more of this kind of injury than had been true previously, or perhaps artists were somewhat more interested in this predicament.  I cannot really account for the scarcity of images in earlier and later periods in any other way.

Abel Grimmer, September landscape with the Parable of the Olive Tree, Collapse of the Tower of Siloam and the Miracle of the Woman Bent Over
Flemish, c. 1600
Private Collection

Although my search did turn up these additional images they remain few.  I think this rather sad.  This is a real, debilitating state in which to find oneself.  Since human beings haven’t changed all that much physically since the appearance of the first humans, whether you are talking about the biblical Adam and Eve or the genetic Adam and Eve, this ailment has been with us in the past as it is today.  Perhaps in the past it was somewhat less frequent, owing to the shorter life expectancies of earlier centuries, but there have always been people who lived to extraordinary ages.  That this woman should be mentioned in the Gospels makes that clear enough.  Therefore, it is sad that artists depicted this miracle only infrequently.  It is the same with another miracle of Jesus, where he heals the withered hand of a man, a miracle which is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.  I found few visual references for that miracle either. 

David Vinckboons I, Healing of the Bent Woman
From a Series on the Life of Christ
Dutch, c. 1610-1615
Private Collection

Perhaps they are less frequently depicted because they are part of a controversy between Jesus and those who believed themselves to be upholders of the Law.  Both cures were done on the Sabbath and are instances of a string of actions by Jesus, taken on the Sabbath, that offended the “leaders”.   Yet, other actions done of the Sabbath, such as the healing of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-17), are visually well represented.

Jan van van Orley, Christ Healing on the Sabbath
From a Series of Scenes from the New Testament
Flemish, c. 1685-1700
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

The fact that the recipient of the miracle is a woman doesn’t seem to be one of the reasons for the lack in the visual record.  I found many, many instances of miracles done for women, from the very widely represented healing of the woman who had been bleeding for many years, to the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, to the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.  Miracles for women abound in both the biblical texts and the visual legacy. 

Jan Luyken, Jesus Heals the Bent Woman in the Synagogue
Dutch, 1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Perhaps the miracle in question wasn’t highly thought of by painters, as it afforded them less space for demonstrations of their skill at depiction.  Perhaps they found the subject of an old, bent woman uncongenial.  

Jan Pieterszoon Saenredam After Hendrick Goltzius, 
A Crippled Old Woman Healed by Christ
Dutch, c. 1594
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

However, I am certain that to the recipient of the miracle, it was the most wonderful moment of her life.  I suspect that, unlike those of us who have to trust our healing to the hands of surgeons, her recovery was neither slow nor tedious nor incomplete, but miraculously complete, leaving her pain free and capable of much greater movement. 

Jan Luyken, Jesus Lays His Hand on the Crooked Woman
Dutch, 1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Thomas Schaidhauf, Christ Heals the Crooked Woman
German, c. 1780-1800
Fürstenfeldbruck, Former Monastery Church of the Assumption 

In any event I find myself sharing in the suffering and the release from it which the few available pictures suggest.  And I will keep on looking for more.  The quest has not ended.

© M. Duffy, 2020 

Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine; Psalm refrain © 1968, 1981, 1997, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Tale of the Third Portrait

John Fisher and Thomas More
Possibly Italian, c. 1550-1600
London, Royal Collections Trust

Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.

But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

1 Peter 4:12-14.  Excerpt from the First Reading of the Optional Memorial of Saint John Fisher, bishop and martyr, and Saint Thomas More, martyr for Masses celebrated on June 22.

New Yorkers have an amazing privilege in that they can see the actual faces of the trio of men who had a fateful encounter almost 500 years ago, all within a walk of less than a quarter mile.  The three men are Thomas More and John Fisher, staunch defenders of Catholic doctrine and discipline at a time when it was under severe attack, and Thomas Cromwell, leader of the forces seeking to undo both.  At the time Cromwell was successful and both men died at the hands of the executioner.  In the long run, Cromwell’s personal victory was brief as he himself fell to the ax.  Further, he has been seen as the villain of the story ever since (barring Hilary Mantel’s recent trilogy of novels which cast him as a rather twisted hero).  His single minded drive to eradicate Catholicism in England, although never entirely successful, has, however, had a longer term effect.

Usual arrangement of the two Holbein portraits in the Living Hall of the Frick Collection
(Photo Credit -- Michelle Young for Untapped Cities)

Most New Yorkers interested in the Tudor period undoubtedly know that the portraits of More and Cromwell, both masterpieces of portrait art by the incomparable Hans Holbein the Younger, are owned by the Frick Collection.  My earlier piece on the clash of portraits across Mr. Frick’s fireplace is my most popular.

Most people are not aware, however, of a slightly earlier portrait of the other figure of the trio, Saint John Fisher, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It has been in storage for many years, finally reappearing just before the onset of the pandemic closures as the first object one encounters in the newly reinstalled British Art galleries.


Pietro Torrigiano, Bishop John Fisher
Italian, c. 1510-1515
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint John Fisher was, at the time of his execution, Bishop of Rochester.  His story is a fascinating one, for in his life he had moved among the very highest level of English society.  He was chaplain to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII.  He was also very involved in the establishment of new colleges at the University of Cambridge, where he also served as a teacher and as Vice-Chancellor, in addition to his other duties.  There is contemporary testimony about his piety and austere lifestyle in spite of his exalted company.  There is even the possibility that, due to the influence of Lady Margaret, he may have been, for a time, the tutor to the young Prince Henry who would become Henry VIII.

Philipp Galle, John Fisher
Dutch, 1572
London, National Portrait Gallery

When Henry VIII began his assault on his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Bishop Fisher was one of those who defended the Queen and the marriage.  Indeed, it was he who represented her at the Legatine Court that assembled to try the case.  She herself ended this phase of his career by famously insisting that the case be referred to Rome.  

As the situation became more highly pressured, Bishop Fisher remained a staunch advocate for the validity of the marriage and for its indissolubility.   Needless to say, this angered the King greatly.  As the pressure increased with Parliament’s actions in denying the right to appeal to Rome, in declaring Henry to be head of the Church in England and then requiring an oath in support of the divorce of Queen Catherine and the remarriage to Anne Boleyn, Fisher found himself in prison in 1534. He was condemned as a traitor and beheaded in June 1535, a few weeks before Sir Thomas More also lost his life.  Both men saw the ultimate stupidity of the king’s moves in the light of eternity and truth and resisted to the end the efforts to convince them to “go along with the pack”.


Anonymous, The Pope Suppressed by King Henry VII
English, c. 1570
London, National Portrait Gallery
In this woodcut print you can see Henry VIII pressing down Pope Clement VII with the support of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer.  Bishop Fisher is the kneeling figure on the left who is trying to support the Pope.  Various clerics, monks and ordinary people express shock and dismay.

I have examined the portraits of More and Cromwell in detail in the article called “The Tale of Two Portraits”.  The two remain together in their new setting at the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, the former home of the Whitney Museum.  The Frick’s treasures have been moved there to allow for them to be seen by the public during the extensive renovation and enlargement taking place at the Frick building on Fifth Avenue.  In the temporary installation the sumptuous trappings of the enormous parlor room in the Frick building have been removed and the two portraits face each other across empty space.  I’m not positive about whether this has been an enhancement or not, possibly since I have literally grown up with the opulent setting. *


Current installation of the Holbein portraits at the Frick Madison temporary location.
(Photo -- Art and Object)

The portrait of Bishop Fisher is in the form of a portrait bust by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano.  Torrigiano is probably most famous for an outburst of anger rather than for his work as a sculptor.  He and Michelangelo were fellow students and rivals in the “academy” set up for young Florentine artists by Lorenzo the Magnificent.  One day, when Michelangelo poked fun at the drawings of Torrigiano, the latter boy punched him in the face.  The blow broke Michelangelo’s nose, a disfigurement he carried for the rest of his life.   This put Torrigiano in great disfavor with the Medici and he soon looked for alternative places to perfect his art. 

Pietro Torrigiano, Bishop John Fisher
Italian, c. 1510-1515
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In about 1509 he arrived in England to produce a terracotta bust of the recently deceased King Henry VII.  Such busts already had a long history among Florentine sculptors.  It was well received by the new young king Henry VIII.  Young Henry commissioned Torrigiano for the tombs of his father and mother and grandmother, all of which are still extant in Westminster Abbey in the beautiful chapel the older Henry had built for himself.  While in England Torrigiano also made portrait busts of several important churchmen, including Bishop Fisher and John Colet. 

It is presumably toward the beginning of his stay in England that he made the bust of Bishop Fisher.  The Metropolitan Museum is somewhat cagey about the attribution.  Some of the Met’s sources say that it is John Fisher, others say that it is simply “An Unknown Man”.1   So, I’ve done a little research in various English source websites and from the material available there I think that it is extremely reasonable to support the identification as Fisher.  

The objections seem to be based on a perception that the sculpture does not match the portrait sketches of Fisher done by Holbein during his stays in England in the late 1520s or early 1530s.  However, if one remembers that the bust is between ten and twenty years old at the time of the sketches, some of the difficulty vanishes.  

Hans Holbein the Younger, John Fisher
German, c. 1526-1534
London, Royal Collection Trust

Pietro Torrigiano, Bishop John Fisher
Italian, c. 1510-1515
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Comparison between the known portrait of Fisher by Holbein and the Torrigiano bust reveal the same narrow chin, long narrow nose, thin lips and hazel eyes as are found in the portrait drawing and a “pattern” made from it.  

Face Pattern After Hans Holbein the Younger, Bishop John Fisher
German, 16th Century
London, National Portrait Gallery

The pattern is a survivor of one of the professional “tricks of the trade” used by painters in earlier centuries.  A tracing would be made from an original drawing and the copy would serve as the model or “pattern” from which painters and engravers would be able to work in creating multiple copies without harming the original.  The age difference between a man of 41 of the bust and the same man at around 60 in the drawing can easily account for any differences.  In this consideration it is useful to compare the portrait drawing of Thomas More with the finished portrait to see how the immediacy of the drawing can look quite different in the finished work.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More
German, 1526-1527
London , Royal Collections Trust

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More
German, 1527
New York, Frick Collection

The feast day shared by the two men is June 22.  This is a compromise between the actual dates of their deaths.  Bishop Fisher was the first to die, on June 22, 1535.  Sir Thomas More followed a couple of weeks later, on July 6.  

Mistruzzi, Reverse of Medal Commemorating the Canonization of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher
Italian, 1935
London, Royal Collection Trust, Royal Library

Today, when there is continuing and increasing pressure being put on people of faith to “go along with the pack” on a host of serious issues, these determined and brave men stand as beacons of light and courage. 

 © M. Duffy, 2021

* UPDATE: 2024 -- The temporary displacement of the More and Cromwell portraits has come to an end.  The exhibition space in the former Whitney building has been vacated.  However, the Frick Collection building is not yet open to the public.   As of this date (June 21, 2024) the collection is being reinstalled in its permanent home, which is scheduled to reopen in the autumn of 2024.

 1.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Catalog of the Renaissance in Italy and Spain, Introduction by Frederick Hartt, New York, 1987, p. 117 calls it Bust of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester.

Iain Wardropper, European Sculpture, 1400-1900, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011, pp. 47-49 calls it Portrait of an Unknown Man and gives some of the background for disputing the title. 

Wolf Burchard, Nation of Shopkeepers: A Very Brief History of British Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New York, Spring 2020, pp. 6-7 calls it Bishop John Fisher without referencing any ambiguity.

The exhibition primer for the new British galleries on the Metropolitan Museum website calls it Bishop John Fisher and includes a brief audio clip that includes some of Fisher’s own words in opposition to the divorce.*&offset=20

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Iconography of the Holy Trinity -- The Pietà of the Father, Divine Love Made Visible

El Greco, The Sorrow of God
Greco-Spanish, c. 1577-1579
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17 (Jesus speaking to Nicodemus)
Gospel for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year B

 “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.  
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”
1 John 4:9-10 (John the Evangelist writing toward the end of the first century AD)1

Christians, and Catholics in particular, believe in a Triune God.  Catholics begin every liturgy, every prayer with the words “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, echoing the words of Jesus himself “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  (Matthew 28:19).  Christians of all types baptize in the name of the Three Persons.  Catholics and some other Christians also end prayers with what is known as a doxology, the most familiar of which for Catholics is “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.”.  Many liturgical prayers address God the Father directly at their end in a way that includes the other Persons of the Trinity “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

What is this all about?  “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself.”2  Belief in the Holy Trinity is unique to Christianity and is one of the most difficult of all Christian concepts to understand.  It is a primary stumbling block for many, many people.  To Jews and Muslims it is inconceivable, even blasphemous, to suggest that God, the One God, should be Three "Persons" and that one of the Three became and remains human.  To those who acknowledge that God may exist, it is a leap too far to say that this “Force” is somehow personal, let alone triune, and that the man, Jesus, was also God.  To those from cultural traditions where many gods are the norm, it is puzzling why Christianity claims to be about one God, when it seems to name three. 
Diagram that attempts to explain the relationships within the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Each is God, but they are differentiated independently.  Therefore, the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, The son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.  But each is God and together they are one and undivided God.  

To Christians the Trinity is one of the great glories of Christianity, but also one of its most profound (in the sense of deep and overwhelming) mysteries. Even the most subtle thinkers have reminded us that our earthbound, materially based, intellects cannot grasp the full reality of the Three in One.  Yet, the Christian belief in the Trinity appears very early on, already in use by Saint Paul in the middle of the first century, barely twenty years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.3  And, it was clearly in evidence by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, about an additional thirty years later, as evidenced by the quote in the first paragraph above.4     It certainly represents a huge break from Jewish tradition, with the strong insistence on the oneness of God.  It is a break so radical that it is, in itself, evidence of a revelation, for what devout Jew would or could imagine such a thing. 

Federico Zuccaro, Seven Archangels Adoring the Trinity
Italian, c. 1600
Rome, Church of Il Gesù

Also early and profound is the assertion that this infinite God so loved us, flawed as we are, that he chose to unite himself with us and to suffer with us at the deepest level, through the limitations of a human life, bearing physical torture and psychological suffering, and dying in his human body, just like us.  But then, Christians believe that, in a spectacular and completely unexpected act, that divine-human person also rose to a new kind of life in that same body and took that body into the infinity of God, which is the loving union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And further, we believe that God offers a share in this new life to us, through his union with us.  Only love can do this and love is the nature of the Holy Trinity.  Although no theologian has been able to completely explain the Trinity, it is generally agreed that the essence of God is love, that this love is cosmically creative, that it is self-reflective and that the self-reflection is the source of the distinct “Persons” who sustain all of creation through the mutual, overflowing, infinitely active love which they share. 

Many times the Evangelist John reminds us that God is love and that his infinite love is also the source of his self-offering, for the Jesus who teaches and heals and suffers and dies is also the Father, and, when we see him we see the Father.
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”
John 14:9-10 (Jesus speaking to the Apostle Philip)

Imagining the Unimaginable

Some years ago I wrote about the iconography of the Holy Trinity (see Iconography of the Holy Trinity -- Imagining the Unimaginable).  This has consistently remained one of my most popular articles.  In it I tried to explain the difficulties Christian writers and artists have had over the centuries in trying to imagine and picture the Trinity.  I also gave a brief overview of some of the ways in which visual artists have envisioned the Trinity.  In this article I will be looking at one of those treatments, in which artists have struggled to give form to the self-offering of the Trinity.

Most people in western culture today are vaguely aware of the image of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son on her lap, known as the Pietà.  The image of the sorrowing mother is one that, on a human level, no one has any trouble understanding.  One does not need to be a Christian to relate to the image.  
Michelangelo, Pietà
Italian, c. 1499-1500
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica

Primarily the image that comes to mind is the great statue carved by the young Michelangelo, which has been on display in the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City for centuries.  But very few are aware that a there is another image which, though derived from it, shows a far more profound, even troubling, idea.  For in it we see that God the Father presents us with the ultimate proof of his love for his human creatures.

Workshop of the Master of the Coronation of the Virgin, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1402
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 515, fol.130v

The Iconclass system, a system of classifying art by subject, developed in Holland during the 20th century, describes this image type as “God the Father standing or seated, holding the body of Christ, ‘Pitié-de-Notre-Seigneur’, ‘Not Gottes’”. 5  These two expressions may be translated into English as the “Sorrow of God”. It is this image that we will be examining here.

Development of the Image of the Sorrow of God

The Sorrow of God image appears to have had its beginnings in the period stretching from the end of the fourteenth- to the beginning of the fifteenth-century.  A series of other images, centering around the body of Christ depicted as bearing the wounds of the Crucifixion, appear to have played a role in its development. 

First, the image of the Pietà, in which the body of Jesus, removed from the cross, is laid across the lap of Mary, his mother. 

Roettgen Pietà
German, c. 1300
Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum

Roberto d'Oderisi, Pietà
Italian, c. 1370
Private Collection

Enguerrand Quarton, Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon
French, c. 1460
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Louis Brea, Pietà
French, c. 1485-1495
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Lorenzo Lotto, Pietà
Italian, 1545
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Then the image of the Man of Sorrows, in which the dead Christ stands or sits before the viewer, showing the wounds of the Passion for contemplation.

Master of the Borgo Crucifix, Man of Sorrows
Italian, c. 1255-1260
London, National Gallery

Niccolo di Tommasso, Man of Sorows
Italian, c. 1370
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

Master of Mary of Burgundy, Man of Sorrows
Flemish, c. 1480
Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinet

Lautenbach Master, Man of Sorrows
German, c. 1480
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

A third image that contributes is the closely related Throne of Grace or “Mercy Seat” image, in which God the Father, joined by the symbolic dove of the Holy Spirit, presents Christ on the cross to our gaze. 

The Throne of Grace
From Psalter-Hours of Ghiluys de Boisleux
French (Arras), c. 1246-1260
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 730, fol.  203r

Agnolo Gaddi, The Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1390-1396
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist
and Two Donors
Italian, c. 1425-1428
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella

The Throne of Grace
French, c. 1470s
Cleveland, Museum of Art

All three of these image types begin to appear at least 100 years before the Sorrow of God, which can perhaps also be called a Divine Pietà or Divine Lamentation.  And it takes elements from each of them. 

From the Pietà, it takes the image of the dead body laid across the lap of a parent.

French, c. 1515
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master of the Darmstadt Passion, The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1440-1450
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Jean le Ravernier and Follower, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours with Additional Prayers
Flemish (Oudenaarde), c. 1450-1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 2, fol. 54r

From the Man of Sorrows, it takes the image of the dead Christ, sometimes supported by Mary and/or John and sometimes by angels.

Giovanni Bellini, The Man of Sorrows with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist
Italian, c. 1455
Bergamo, Accademia Carrara

Master of Flamalle, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1433-1435
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Robinet Testard, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Poitiers), c. 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1001, fol. 148r

From the Throne of Grace image, it takes the inclusion of the dead Christ with the images of Father and Holy Spirit.

Attributed to Jean le Noir, The Throne of Grace
From Epistolary of the Sainte-Chapelle
French (Paris), c. 1325-1375
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 34, fol. 116v

The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Haarlem), c. 1445-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1031, fol. 52v

Master of the Holy Kinship, The Sorrow of God
Exterior Side of Double Faced panel
German, c. 1500
Private Collection

The Sorrow of God

Where the Sorrow of God image often departs from the other image types is in the relationship between God the Father and the spectator.  The images of the Pietà present Mary’s grief at the death of her son, but her grief is something we view as outsiders.  Her mourning takes place within time and is directed toward the dead body lying in her lap or on the ground before her.  Her sorrow is contained in the picture plane or the space within a sculpture.  We approach it as bystanders, closed out of the sorrowing group. 

Jean Hey (Master of Moulins), Pieta with Saints John Evangelist and Mary Magdalene
French, c. 1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre

In the Sorrow of God images the Father holds the body of his dead son, but he holds it in a way that presents it directly to our gaze.  We do not experience it through the eyes of Mary, as we do in the Pietà, nor do we experience it as a comfortably distant moment in time.  We see it in an ever new Now.  We are directly confronted by it.  Indeed, in many of the later images of the Sorrow of God, the Father looks directly out at us, as if challenging us to pay attention.  We are not invited to participate in a sympathetic viewing of the dead Jesus, but to contemplate it as a divine offering, that has cost the Father dearly. “It is not just an image that awakens the spectator's piety; it is primarily an image for God's piety, of his active and victorious mercy in Christ.”6

Attributed to the Dunois Master, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1440-1450
London, British Library
MS Egerton 2019, fol. 203

Master of Sir George Talbot, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M390, fol. 165v

Tilman Riemenschneider, The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1516
Berlin, Skulpturensammlung der Staatliche Meseen zu Berlin

It differs from the Man of Sorrows image because, although the figure of the dead Christ may be held before our eyes, it is held by God the Father and usually includes the figure of the Holy Spirit, either as a dove or as another human-like Person.  Hence, the Sorrow of God image is ultimately Trinitarian in nature.  We are to contemplate the image of the Crucified One in relation to his position as a member of the Trinity, not just as a human being.  .  In addition, in some of these images, God the Father or the Holy Spirit are shown as speaking to Jesus, or breathing upon him, returning him to human life.

Master of Mary of Burgundy, The Sorrow of God
From Hours of Mary of Burgundy
Flemish (Ghent or Bruges), c. 1480
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Inv. # 78 B 12, fol. 13v

Master of Nicholas von Firmian, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1170, fol. 111v

It differs from the Throne of Grace image in that it is an image of pathos rather than of presentation and triumph.  It is as if the Father is asking us to understand the effects of our sin and the price of redemption.  It is as if he speaks to us and says “See what your disobedience has cost.  See how much I love you.”  It is a reminder that, as the theologian Gerald Vann suggests “the Cross…goes on, first because though the Crucifixion was an event in time it was God who was crucified; and … all temporal events, past, present and future, were all equally present.  It goes on, secondly, because, while the mystery of divine pity is temporally expressed in Calvary through the humanity of Christ, it is also eternally and constantly present in the depths of the Godhead, not indeed in the form of suffering as humanity knows it, but as the eternal will-to-share which is thus revealed as an aspect of infinite love – a will-to-share which is … the true involvement of a state of being in which the imperfections of joy or sorrow as we know them are transcended in the fullness of creative and redeeming love.”7  

Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, 1430
Frankfurt, Stadelsches Kunstinstitut

Follower of the Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1500
Private Collection

Colijn de Coter, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1510-1515
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Albrecht Dürer, The Sorrow of God
German, 1511
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The point of the image is not ambiguous, for, in some of the later images, especially those in prints, the text of John 3:16-17 is included in the image.  We are reminded that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  The images make this offering of love very clear.  We are being challenged by it, we are shown this offering of the Divine Love and we are gently urged to respond to it in love.

Hieronymus Wierix, The Sorrow of God with Quotation from John 3:16-17
Flemish, c. 1600-1619
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

In later images, the Father takes on what is almost a gesture of pleading with the viewer to avail themselves of the grace gained by so much suffering.

Johann Saderler after Maarten van Heemskerck, The Sorrow of God
Dutch. c. 1560-1600
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Federico Zuccari, The Sorrow of God
Italian, c. 1563
Rome, Church of Santissima Trinita dei Monti, Pucci Chapel

Peter Paul Rubens, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1620
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Corrado Giaquinto, The Sorrow of God
Italian, c. 1755-1756
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

This heightened concentration on the participation of the Father in the suffering of the Son represents one of the powerful currents of thought and of Christian devotion active in late medieval Europe.  Between the apparent serenity of the “high” middle ages, which is generally reckoned to be the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the disturbed, somewhat fretful world of the fifteenth century lies the fourteenth century.  The fourteenth century saw several of the worst catastrophes to hit Europe in all of history.  These included:  serious famine, the failure of the last crusades, fraternal wars within Europe, instability in the Church and, worst of all, the Black Death, the great plague that wiped out huge numbers of people.  Perhaps in response to these disturbances nominalist philosophers developed a new philosophical theory that challenged the long tradition of idealism, going back to Plato.  Where the tradition believed in the existence of universal or “ideal” concepts, the new philosophy of nominalism held that there were no universals, only particular instances of being.  This was deeply disturbing to the way in which individuals saw the world.  Also, during this period the Church, which had been functioning at a high level, commanding respect from rulers and people throughout Europe, fell into serious dysfunction, with the removal of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in southern France and subsequent control of the papacy by the French kings, then later with several sets of anti-popes establishing their courts in places other than Rome and drawing allegiance from different countries, making for a chaotic and disunited Church.  

The general instability led people to seek new ways of relating to God and to each other with the formation of various lay communities, some associated with established religious orders, some independently under the authority of their local bishop.  Among these new movements were the Beguines, communities of lay women, and the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, communities sometimes composed of men only, sometimes of women and sometimes of whole families.  Most of these new organizations, collectively known as the Devotio Moderna, were active in Northern Europe, especially in the Low Countries and Germany, which also was the region in which the image of the Sorrow of God was most popular. Among the contributions made by these groups is one of the most well-known devotional books of all time, The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas a Kempis and still in use today.  Among the techniques of prayer which the followers of the Devotio Moderna popularized was that of mentally placing oneself at a scene from the Bible.  This type of focused meditation may have contributed to the rise of images such as the Sorrow of God.

The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1415-1430
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum

Dunois Master, The Sorrow of God
From the Dunois Hours
French (Paris), c. 1440-1450
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 3, fol. 152v 

Follower of the Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
From the Ersheim Altarpiece
German, c. 1500
Hirschhorn, Former Monastery Church of the Annunciation

Jan Vermeyen, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1500
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Maarten van Heemskerck, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1544-1545
Private Collection

Jose de Ribera, The Sorrow of God
Spanish, 1635
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The development of this image demonstrates the enormous power of pictures to make instantly accessible ideas that frequently require many words.  The idea which the subject of this article represents is that of John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son”.  But it is even more than that, for some of these images emphasize the aspect of the Trinity that seems hardest to understand.  They present us with an image of the Father or of the Father and the Holy Spirit in which all three figures have the same face, reminding us that Jesus said “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).   And this is a reminder to us to contemplate the way in which the love of God has expressed itself, for in showing us the body of the dead Jesus, the Trinity is represented as showing us its very self. 

chool of the Talbot Master,  The Trinity Adored by a Donor
From Sept articles de la foy
French (Rouen), c. 1440-1450_
London, British Library
MS Royal 19 A XXII, fol. 1r

Master of Jean Chevrot, The Trinity
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1445-1455
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 421, fol. 15v

Hugo van der Goes, The Trinity
Wing from the Trinity Altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1478-1479
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland

Miguel Ximenez, The Trinity
Spanish, c. 1480-1490
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian,, The Trinity
From Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1495-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 52, fol. 189v

Simon Bening, The Trinity
From the Da Costa Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1510-1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 399, fol. 340v

These images are both a reminder and a plea.  They are a reminder of the almost inconceivable love of God for humanity and also a plea to humans to remember and to receive that gift of love, so freely and so painfully given.  For the infinite, omnipotent and impassible Godhead of the Three in One incorporates within itself an element of what Vann called the "will-to-share" with us our experience of suffering, but in such a way that our human suffering is healed, if we but accept the gift.

Jean Bellegambe,  The Trinity Triptych
Flemish, c. 1500
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts

© M. Duffy, 2019; with additional and refreshed images, 2023

1.  Introduction to the First Letter of John from New American Bible, Revised Edition, © Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. Printed edition by Catholic Bible Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville and Atlanta, 1987, p. 1413.  The same text is available online at 1 John 4.

2.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part I, §2, Chapter 1, Article 1, ¶2, #234.  Online at:  In print:  United States Catholic Conference, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City State, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994.

3. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.”  (2 Corinthians 13:13)

4.  Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew from New American Bible, Revised Edition, © Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. Printed edition by Catholic Bible Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville and Atlanta, 1987, pp.1057-1061.  The same text is available online at The Gospel According to Matthew.

5.  A description of the Iconclass system of iconographic classification may be read at Iconclass Description.  The system itself can be accessed at the Iconclass website.

6.  Boespflug, François (trans. Cuneen, Joseph).  “The Compassion of God the Father in Western Art”, CrossCurrents, Volume 42, Winter 1992/1993, p. 500.

7.  Vann, Gerald, O.P.  The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God, New York, Alba House, 1994, p. 91.

Further reading:

Boespflug, François and Cuneen, Joseph.  “The Compassion of God the Father in Western Art”, CrossCurrents, Volume 42,  Winter 1992/1993, pp. 487-503.

Schiller, Gertrud.  Iconography of Christian Art, Volume 2, The Passion of Jesus Christ.  Translated by Janet Seligman.  Greenwich, CT; New York, Graphic Society, 1977 and subsequent, pp. 219-224.

Vann, Gerald, O.P.  The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God.  New York, Alba House, 1994, pp. 75-97. 

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.