Milan, 8 June 2019
During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.
But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.
This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”
The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.
Very nice, very dignified, very composed.
But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.
Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all
Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish
At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth
Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.
The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.
The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.
In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable
while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.
(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)
This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”
Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!
It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.
We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).
Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.
Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.
We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).
Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.
On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.
The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).
This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).
On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).
It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.
But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).
I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.
From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.
Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!
A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.
This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.
The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.
If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.
This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.
Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)
This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.
It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.
I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.
So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble. I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.
Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.