CathBlog - The shock of the Pietà


As I collapsed into a pew in yet another Spanish cathedral, I was irrationally irritated. 

How is all this awesome magnificence relevant to what is happening in our beleaguered world? Is this the same Spain that is causing world wide fiscal angst? What has it got to do with the grinding daily reports of massacres, natural disasters, austerity measures?

Behind the high altar, at the pinnacle of tiers of gold encrusted cherubs, more mature angels and miscellaneous, anonymous saints, was a statue of the Madonna. She was dressed as a Spanish medieval queen, her heavy, richly coloured brocade robe shot through with gold thread, silk ruffles around her neck and a jewel encrusted tiara perched on her head, her alabaster face and steepled fingers barely visible beneath the grandeur. 

Bemused, I wondered what Mary of Nazareth would make of it. Then I noticed a breathtaking altarpiece the full height of the wall of the cathedral almost completely hidden by the glitzy Madonna. 

It was a wood carving depicting Jesus being taken down from the Cross. It was a busy scene. Two ladders leaned against the Cross, a figure on the top step, another at its foot, holding a shroud. Two other crosses, the dead figures of the thieves still hanging on them, were in the background. Several Roman soldiers, spears at the ready milled around. 

Barely visible in the distance, was a 16th century edifice, undoubtedly the cathedral itself. There were several other figures at the foot of the Cross, the women, John the Apostle and Joseph of Arimathea. But it was not possible to see Mary cradling the body of Jesus as this part of the tableau was directly behind the bejewelled Madonna, obliterated from view.

Several days later, we visited Montserrat, an extraordinary construction in an extraordinary landscape. We dutifully joined yet another queue to see the ‘Black Madonna’ a wooden statue, primitive in style, of huge significance to the Spanish and indeed devout Catholics everywhere, most probably dating from the 9th century (although it’s creation is sometimes attributed to St Luke!) 

It was at Montserrat that St Ignatius Loyola laid down his soldier’s trappings and soon after his pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Madonna wrote his Spiritual Exercises. The Basilica itself was calm, devotional and peaceful, (in spite of the usual influx of tourists!) a welcome sanctuary after the frenetic activities of the previous weeks. 

Having observed the requisite ritual of filing past the iconic statue and even being allowed to touch it, I took time to wander through this lovely basilica. In a side chapel was a painting of a larger than life Pietà. In it, Mary, a decidedly middle-aged, simply dressed bare-footed peasant woman seemed to be seated but was actually floating over a desolate landscape. 

She was not so much cradling her Son, lying stiff and white and awkwardly across her lap, as offering Him up, her fingers clenched around His body. Her facial expression was riveting. Looking directly out of the canvas, her eyes mutely screamed ‘Why? Why this?’ 

Here was a woman beside herself with grief, her devastation as stark as the landscape and the body she was clutching. There was no acceptance of her tragic loss in her demeanour, no pious resignation to this fate. 

I found this Pietà confronting, almost shocking. It struck me that her silent cry of untold anguish encapsulated the tears and heartbreak of all mothers inconsolably bereaved by the horror of violence and war and the death of their children. It restored my faith in the efficacy of religious art. Perhaps it is relevant, in ways we cannot always understand, to the ongoing suffering and pain endured in our broken world.

Elizabeth McKenzieElizabeth McKenzie is a Melbourne writer.

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