Louvre Made Easy‎ > ‎

The Pieta of Villeneuve-les-Avignon

This is not the most joyous painting in the Louvre. Suffering is depicted very well here, though, unlike other "pieta" artworks of the period - the figures show great restraint. So,  Jesus is dead in this painting. In the picture we have - Jesus Christ, his mother the Virgin Mary holding him, weeping former prostitute sinner-turned-saint Mary Magdalene, Saint John - Jesus' favorite Apostle checking out Christ's head and you can see the donor of this painting kneeling in prayer in the corner - his size is the same as all the other people but he clearly doesn't belong in the scene - he is only present there through his prayer and is inviting the viewer to do the same - experience a religious scene through prayer. The purpose of this painting was to invite people to pray. The wealthy donor who commissioned this painting wanted to show off his piety and to guarantee himself a place in heaven.

Pieta is the name of a painting in which the Virgin Mary is holding her son's dead body which has just been taken off the cross. We can see the wounds in his hands, torso and feet. Around the head's of the people depicted (except the praying canon and Jesus) you can see halos with their names written inside. Saint Mary Magdalene is holding a vase full of ointments for the Christ's burial. Saint John is removing crown of thorns from his head. 

The background is gold which was required of religious paintings of the time because gold represented the divine light. In the background you can see the city of Jerusalem, interestingly you can also see that the city had Islamic Minarets everywhere. There is also a theory that the city in the back is Istanbul (Constantinople) a Christian city which had just been captured by Muslims. On the sides of the gold background there's an inscription from lamentations of jeremiah in the bible "is it nothing to you, all you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow" - these are the words the Virgin Mary supposedly told the faithful after her son died.

When this painting was rediscovered in the 19th century nobody knew the artist's name. Only when it got to the Louvre in 1905 did people find out if was painted by Enguerrand Quarton. He is also famous for his manuscript illumination (painting in old books). There are few of his works surviving and we know very little about his life. He is the same guy who painted the "Coronation of the Virgin"  - a sketch of it is hanging here in the Louvre.