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The mother, icon of the Pietà


On Golgotha the Virgin holds the body of Christ deposed from the Cross in her lap before it is carried to the tomb. In art history this iconographic motif is indicated by the term “Pietà”. The subject made its appearance in Northern Europe from 1300. It was thus contemporaneous with the new forms of medieval devotion which proposed the contemplation of Christ through meditation on new visual images. Among these images of holiness, the Pietà – which is called by this same name – is without a doubt the most widespread. The image rapidly entered devotional usage, accompanying hymns of elevation by the greatest mystics united with the Virgin’s sufferings. In a late Middle Ages, which extended from the 14th to the 16th centuries,the figurative form therefore expresses one of the strongest scenes of Christian pathos to which responds, like an echo, Jeremiah’s lament: “Is it nothing to you all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lam 1:12).

the photograph of Georges Mérillon that won the World Press Photo prize in 1991.

The “Pietà of Kosovo”: it is by the medieval term that the collective conscience has chosen to designate one of the most famous journalistic photographs of recent years. On 29 January 1990, the photographer Georges Mérillon took part in the funeral vigil of Nasimi Elshani in the village of Nagafc, Kosovo: the young man who had just been killed by the Serbian militia, rests in peace before his mother, surrounded by other women of the family who watch over his body wrapped in a white shroud. The collective conscience immediately recognized this photo and took possession of it. In 1991 it won the World Press Photo Prize – at the very moment when the Gulf War had broken out – and went round the world. The Prize gave an immediate preference to the “plastic quality” of the photograph rather than to the importance of the political event to which it refers. Indeed, in 1991 international attention was not focused on Yugoslavia, and even less on Kosovo. It was necessary to wait for the exodus of Kosovans and NATO’s intervention in 1999 for this photo, considered an icon from that moment on, to become a testimony that left us with a piece of political information. From that moment the scene in the background became legible, revealing the historical reality which is inherent in it and whose roots are sunk deep in a long history of suffering and war.

While medieval artists were beginning to sculpt Pietàs with suffering faces, in medieval Kosovo in 1389 the Battle of the Field of the Blackbirds saw the defeat of the Serbian people and the consecration of Ottoman domination. The roots of Serbian nationalism are linked to this defeat. Six hundred years later, in 1989, to commemorate that battle, Slobodan Milošević decided to break the Albanian majority by suppressing the statutes of Kosovo’s autonomy granted by Tito. This decision unleashed in the province, which had been autonomous until that moment, a heated protest, a non-armed uprising and demonstrations that were repressed with bloodshed. Nasimi Elshani, mourned by his mother and by th

mourners on a fragment of an Attic vase (535–525 B.C.)

The image of pain evokes the sufferings of all mothers in a cry that pierces through time: the image is vibrant, the image is surprising. Christian devotion and contemporary photography are combined as in an eternal scene of compassion. The suffering mother is beside her dead son. But whereas the Pietà refers to the Passion of Christ on which Vespers meditates on the moment of his deposition from the Cross, the photograph captures live a Muslim funeral rite, in which only women take part while the men stay in another room before accompanying the body to the cemetery. United in the same pain, the two images are thus radically distinguished, one calling to mind the Christian world, the other, the Muslim world. What is more, the photograph of Georges Mérillon does not reproduce a model, as one might say, for example, of a copy. It does not copy the medieval Pietà: there is no repetition of the archetypes of Western painting. On the contrary, the photographic icon seems to indicate the continuity of an image in movement. Thus it immediately calls to mind the medieval image of the Pietà and, even before that, the scenes of mourning painted on ancient vases. The common foundation of worship in the Balkans, in which the Christian and Muslim religions are interwoven, let us not forget it, is always that of Greek antiquity.

Professional mourners, the medieval mater dolorosa, the Pietà of Kosovo: Georges Mérillon’s photograph is like the returning form of an image in movement, whose importance had been grasped in its time by Greek thought. The photograph further corresponds to the definition of the image in the way that the historian Aby Warburg conceived it concretely in the first decade of the 20th century. This thinker of Jewish origins – like his contemporary Mallarmé – wanted to introduce people to “a physics of the passions and to a history of suffering humanity”, seeking in works the collective expressions of suffering which run through history. The art historian’s aim is in fact to know how the suffering or the pathos lived by men and women, most commonly determined by gestural language – such as, for example, a gesture of lament – gives life to the work of art: in other words to a “form” that Warburg calls Pathosformel (“formula of pathos”).

Andrea Mantegna, “Lament over the dead Christ” (detail, 1475-1478).

From that time every image of suffering is like a boomerang image, carrying the force of the past into the present, in other words creating a memory of it. Indeed, for Aby Warburg “Memory is a force which is manifest in the course of human destiny as a common heritage”. Memory is “survival” (Nachleben). By the term “survival”, Warburg also designates what, in an image, has lost its original value of usage and of meaning, but continues in any case to act in time thanks to its potential of memory. At the heart of the science of culture, which he invented, this type of image is thus similar to a “ghost” which can overcome the boundaries of space and time. The images are in fact alive and migrating, for which reason they are able to endure in memories, conscious or unconscious. In his atlas of images, to which he gives the name of the Greek personification of Memory, Mnemosyne, Aby Warburg inserts many images of medieval Pietàs. In the plates of his Mnemosyne are thus set out reproductions of numerous Pietàs, those by Donatello, Mantegna and Raphael, beside scenes from ancient vases, terribly silent laments which enable one to hear the Italy of the years from 1140 to1520.

Looking again at the images, just as Aby Warburg looked at the images of pathos, the contemporary historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman created in his turn an atlas of images in which the medieval Pietà is next to photographs of dead Communards and images of pathos of the contemporary cinema: Pasolini (Anger, The Gospel according to St Matthew), Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin), Paradžanov (Wild Horses of Fire), Dreyer (Ordet).... 

A scene from the film “The Gospel according to St Matthew” by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)

The power of the images does not depend on their inscription in the registry of fine arts. The images are contained in the atlas because of their extreme power to express suffering and pathos, as does Michelangelo’s Pietà. Thus the images do not belong only to their historical present. Hence memory is timeless. What history itself contains of the survival of images of pathos – from the Pietàs to the Pietà of Kosovo – is the crucial stake of life at the very centre of death. All these images, in fact, do not show death but life that is stronger than death: a life that can transform tears into hope, desperation into action, night into a morning that is dawning. In the twilight of Good Friday, in Mary’s transpierced heart a silent source of life wells up from Christ’s wound, where the whole of medieval thought locates the birth of the Church. In the Yugoslavian tragedy, through the strength of the Muslim women a vibrant pride is present which can put an entire people back on their journey and transform groans into combat. “Around Nasimi’s body are Sabrié, his mother, who is standing by his head, and on the left is Aferdita, his young 16-year-old sister. His other sister Ryvije is in the centre in tears”, as Georges Mérillon describes it. It is they who bear witness to the force of life in their defeat of death in order to attain life. Then the Pietàs become icons to open up space and time in order to emerge from the darkness.

The term Pietà can therefore make its echo heard in a present concerned with the forms of secularization that are proper to it to open new spaces of belief which have nothing vitalist about them. The Pietà of the Christian Middle Ages and the Pietà of the Yugoslav tragedy of our time express, each in its own way, openness to Messianic hope. Might not the term “Pietà” perhaps transmit this survival, over and above the centuries and the different confessions?




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 25, 2020