February 22, 2016

A Beautiful Grief: Petrus Christus' "Lamentation"

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation, ca. 1450; oil on wood, 10 x 13 3/4 in.
My photograph.

My favorite European painting galleries in Metropolitan Museum of Art are those that contain early Renaissance and Medieval painting from Italy and the Netherlands. The art of the 14th and 15th centuries has a clarity that I admire: forms are defined by crisp lines, and compositions are ordered in receding planes using geometry for placing elements. There is emotion, but it is contained, making it, for me, more convincing than overt passions. In one of those galleries, 641, is a favorite painting of mine: The Lamentation by Petrus Christus. I love the beauty of its refined forms, the sensitivity of the portraiture, the figures within a landscape, the attention to detail, but most of all I love the repeating curves of the Christ figure and the grieving Mary above him. The curves seem emblematic of grief, and they are enhanced by the arcs of supporting arms. 

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation
The Met's photograph, from their website

I have posted two photographs of this work, the first my own and the second from the museum's website. I did this to show two different color renditions of the same painting; I have no idea which one is closest to the real thing. Reproductions are useful, but are not truth. If you go to the website link you can see the high resolution photo, which enables you to wander through the painting. All the images below are from the museum's website. 

The curve of his body is repeated in the curves of Christ's face: eyebrows, eyes, mouth are eloquent shapes, their poignancy enhanced by lines of blood and the spikes of the crown of thorns. The faces of Christ, Mary, and Mary Magdalene are archetypes, symbols of faith and compassion....

....while the portraits of the men in this painting, who are Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and John, who is supporting Mary, are specific individuals. Joseph, with his fur hat and his beard and his intent look.....

....is very different from the smooth capped face of Nicodemus, who has an inward expression of concern.

The story of the Lamentation is also told through objects in the landscape: the cross being held up by rocks piled against its base; the scattered bones reminding us of the transience of life.

The terrible tools lie on the ground near Christ's feet, ordinary-seeming objects.

Petrus Christus paid great attention to the elegant details of clothing. 

Behind the figures on the right, an imagined landscape opens to a distant castle and hillside village, dotted with blue lakes....

....while to the left a road swerves up to another castle, with two figures anchoring its curves. The simplified treatment of the distances contrasts with the very precise detail of the foreground, creating a believably deep space. But I come back to the figure of Mary Magdalen, with her pained expression, and, surprisingly enough, I focus on the white cloth on her head whose folds, exquisitely painted, are so touching and true.


  1. Beautiful; moving.

  2. Thank you yet again.
    Your guidance through the details is very-much-appreciated.
    (I have learned how to invoke the comment-box: click on "Reply" and scroll down a bit....there it'll be, "Add Comment"!)

  3. A wonderful post for a long quiet winter evening...perfect time to delve into the painting...with masterly guidance. Thank you, Your friend, Deborah

  4. Altoon, I read this post early this morning before driving in to the Museum of Fine Arts - Boston to give a tour on Medieval and Early Renaissance art to a group of high school students. Your analysis of the work of art was appreciated, however what was so inspiring was your willingness to allow yourself to care so much for a work of art. With this as "permission," I too could express my love for the lovely geometry and careful placement of the figures and more in the painting St. Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden. When I can find a deep connection to the work(s), I believe the students benefit. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Jennifer. Because I'm not an art historian, I respond personally to the art I choose to write about, which is always art that I love. I'm not able to do anything else. The van der Weyden is a beautiful painting.