La Pietà of Crivelli

Artist: Carlo Crivelli
Date: 1488 ca.
Dimensions: 105 x 205 cm
Material: Tempera and gold on wood

Restoration efforts made possible by the generosity of the Philadelphia Patrons Chapter

This lunette shaped tablet recalls a rich tradition of other pietas with the same iconography and has long since been identified as the “Painting of Carlo Crivelli representing the dead Christ. The Governo Pontificio bought the piece from Bernardino Giusti for the Capitoline collection in 1831 and placed it in the Vatican Pinacoteca in 1838.

The painting represents the dead Christ is placed in a seated position between the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and St. John the Evangelist who mourn over him with anguished gestures. The otherwise simple background is decorated with an opaque pattern of winged angels. The foreground is dominated by a ledge on which Christ is laid and from which a woven drapery is languidly hung. The lifeless body of the Son of God is on a parapet and is held in veneration by the faithful, both delimiting the physical space and at the same time separating the scene from the viewer. It also marks an imaginary divide between the empirical and figurative world.

In this same context, the liturgical applications of this separation should not be underestimated considering the original sacred setting of the piece, destined to be looked at from down below as it sat in the niche of an apse. The painting’s origins in the Marche where it was originally found lend credence to the theory proposed by Pietro Zampetti in which the painting of Crivelli would have sat in the lunette of an altarpiece originally in San Pietro di Muralto. This church was a Conventual Franciscan church in Camarino (1488) whose main painting is the Mother and Child in the act of giving the keys to St. Peter amidst a crowd formed by St. Francis, Cipriano, Ludovico di Toloso, Ansovinio, Giovanni da Capistrano and Jacopo della Marca.

This lunette represents a later Crivelli style when, under the influence of the Umbrian school, the monumental presentation of the figures with pathetic expressions are mixed in a slower rhythm favoring their decorative function.

State of Preservation

The support of the lunette presents some difficulties since both the lateral and horizontal supports do not compensate adequately for the natural flexing of the wood, therefore cracks have formed. The presence of certain wood-eating pests has also damaged the wood from the back side.
The pictorial surface also suffers some weaknesses. There are lesions and peeling of the original pigments from the base, particularly in the points of pressure caused by the axis of the supports. The presence of an altered state of the varnish has led to a strong “yellowing” and general darkening of the colors. There are localized chromatic variations that also noticeably affect the reading of the painting.

Cittadel Vaticano