Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Lamentation over the Dead Christ
  • Creator: Niccolò dell’Arca, sculptor
  • Description:

    These two life-size terracotta statues were created by Niccolò dell’Arca and are part of a larger ensemble completed in 1463 that portrays the Lamentation of Christ. The two statues depict Mary of Cleophas and Mary Magdalene, both overwhelmed by grief after witnessing the crucifixion and now seeing the body of Christ at rest before them. The statues are particularly striking because of their intense realism and sense of movement; the tormented expressions, mouths open in screams, swirling and agitated clothing, and frantic postures all convey unimaginable shock and sorrow. The statues were originally painted for an even more life-like effect.

    The sculptural tableau was commissioned by the confraternity of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna for their hospital church. This respected lay religious group, with its associated church and hospital, gave its members a social identity embracing both pious devotion and charitable care of the poor. The grief and mourning captured by dell'Arca was intended to document the lived experiences of Christ and his followers and at the same time prompt people's devotions on an affective level. They were encouraged to meditate on the sorrows of Mary and the suffering of Christ in their efforts to seek forgiveness for sins and redemption in the afterlife. This kind of reflection was especially needed in a hospital church, but the connections are further entwined. A papal indulgence for the forgiveness of sins was granted in 1464 in favor of the church to encourage visitors and donations because the confraternity could not finance their charities alone. The bull specifically recommended the Lamentation as "the memorial of the Sepulcher of the Lord, with very beautiful figures and images."

    While expressive lamentation is an ancient tradition long associated with women, many medieval mourners were subject to statutes that limited the type of grief that they were allowed to show during funerary rites. Some thirteenth century Italian laws prohibited men from crying and lamenting altogether, supposedly because loud, distressing male mourning was deemed to have no place in increasingly dense urban environments. Additionally, male mourning was regarded as effeminate and heavily censured as a result. Statutes permitted women to cry and show sadness, but prohibited women from expressing more extreme forms of grief and anger. They weren’t supposed to rip up their clothes, tear out their hair, or scratch their cheeks.

    The dramatic horror of the female figures in the dell'Arca’s Lamentation significantly differs from the more conventional, reserved representations of mourning. The tomb of Philip the Bold, constructed in France in the fifteenth century, is decorated by an ensemble of elegantly sculpted mourners that eternally grieve between miniature cloister arcades. While the statuary figures are unified in experiencing their communal grief, their expressions are reserved, with their arms drawn closely to their chest or obscured by the folds of their funerary garb. Their controlled demeanor is a strong contrast to the wild, raw emotion of dell’Arca’s piece.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Affective Piety Confraternities Lamentation of Christ Mary Magdalene, Saint in Art Mary of Cleophas, Sister of the Virgin Mary, Biblical Figure Mourning
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1463
  • Related Work: Niccolò dell’Arca, Lamentation over the dead Christ (Italy Magazine). Play the slideshow on this page to see 10 detailed views.
    Mary Magdalene (detail) from the Lamentation (Web Gallery of Art)
    Mary of Cleophas (detail) from the Lamentation (Astrid de Brondeau, Les yeux d'Argus)
    The Virgin Mary (detail) from the Lamentation (Astrid de Brondeau, Les yeux d'Argus)
    Mary Salome (detail) from the Lamentation (Astrid de Brondeau, Les yeux d'Argus)
    John (detail) from the Lamentation (Astrid de Brondeau, Les yeux d'Argus)
    Joseph of Arimathea (detail) from the Lamentation (Bluffton University, Bologna Italy)
    Christ's body (detail) from the Lamentation (Bluffton University, Bologna Italy)
    Christ's face (detail) from the Lamentation (Astrid de Brondeau, Les yeux d'Argus)
    Mourners from the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, 1443–1457, alabaster figures averaging 16 inches in height (Research Archives of the Constant University, blog by Daniel Pietersen).
  • Current Location: Bologna, Santa Maria della Vita
  • Original Location: Bologna, Santa Maria della Vita
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Sculptures; Terracotta
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Clay; Paints;
  • Donor: Laymen; The largely lay confraternity of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna commissioned the work for their hospital church.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 151 [Mary Magdalene]//
  • Inscription: Carved on Christ's pillow: OPVS NICOLAI DE APVLIA (The work of Nicholas of Apulia). See a partial view in this photograph (Astrid de Brondeau, Les yeux d'Argus).
  • Related Resources: Boffa, David. "The Touch of Sanctity: Niccolò dell’Arca's Signature on the Lamentation." Notes in the History of Art 35, 4 (2016): 293-301;
    Jugie, Sophie. The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy. Yale University Press, 2010;
    Klebanoff, Randi. “Passion, Compassion and the Sorrows of Women: Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ for the Bolognese Confraternity of Santa Maria della Vita.” Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy: Ritual, Spectacle, Image. Edited by Barbara Wisch and Diane Cole Ahl. Cambridge University Press, 2000;
    Owen Hughes, Diane. “Mourning Rites, Memory, and Civilization in Premodern Italy." Riti e rituali nelle società medievali. Edited by Jacques Chiffoleau, Lauro Martines and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani. Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo, 1994. Pages 23 - 38;
    Woods, Kim W. "The Illusion of Life in Fifteenth-Century Sculpture." Making Renaissance Art. Edited by Kim Woods, Carol M. Richardson and Angeliki Lymberopoulou. Yale University Press, 2007. Pages 103-137.