Sacred vision

Sebastiano del Piombo - Pieta


Sebastaino took the painterly skills of the Venetians to Rome where he met the Florentine tradition of designo, and in particular the style of Michelangelo. This Pieta, perhaps his greatest work, is a study in contrasts. Within an isosceles triangle, at the apex of which is the Paschal full moon, are the figures of the dead Christ and his mother.

Outside the triangle rages a tempest worthy of Giorgione, rich in colour and incident. Within it Mary is monumental - more a fresco or a sculpture than an oil painting. The pose is reminiscent of one of the Sistine chapel Sibyls. The lower part of her body is composed of planes of luminous blue.
Like the Vatican Pieta of Michelangelo the folds of her dress make a capacious knee. But the body of Jesus is not placed there. He lies, visually separated from her, on a white sudarion at her feet. His perfect Apollonian body, is drawn with Florentine precision, but rendered in all the painterly richness of oils. It has a deathly pallor; and yet in its physical perfection seems to be quietly awaiting a bodily resurrection.

The painting is large - in the recent exhibition in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome it dominated the room - as it must have been intended to dominate the funerary chapel in Viterbo for which it was commissioned.

Sebastiano, by breaking the conventions of such pictures - both the anguished emotionalism of the Northern Renaissance and the statuesque calm of the Italian tradition - has created an image both memorable and puzzling. All the emotion has been transferred to the natural world around them. The figures of the Mother of God and her dead Son inhabit a timeless calm.

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