Mary and John the Evangelist mourn Christ, whose upright dead body they support. A mood of solemnity permeates the painting. By exaggerating elements that deserve our compassion, and by presenting them in the immediate foreground, Giovanni Bellini’s Brera Pietà encourages us to imagine ourselves as participants in (rather than as spectators of) the scene in front of us.
Even though we do not know who owned this painting or how they used it, it can help us to consider more generally how paintings of this type prompted emotional responses and aided Christians in their religious devotions. 
Man of Sorrows
The composition of the painting is developed from a type of devotional image known as an imago pietatis (Image of Pity or Man of Sorrows). Images of this type developed from Byzantine icons and are usually close-up portraits of Christ standing upright in his sarcophagus displaying his wounds to the viewer.
Though they were particularly popular in northern Europe, Italian artists, including Giovanni Bellini, also produced them. These images typically separate Christ from the narrative of the Passion, allowing viewers to focus on his isolated suffering.
According to the Gospels, Mary and John were the principal mourners at Christ’s crucifixion. Mary was Christ’s mother and John was Christ’s close friend. John’s Gospel records that he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and that with his dying words Christ charged him with the care of his mother.
Though officially titled a Pietà, Bellini’s painting is—strictly speaking—a lamentation. These are modern art historical categories, but they are useful in distinguishing two related but distinct types of Renaissance devotional images. While pietàs show the Virgin alone mourning over Christ’s body after its removal from the cross (such as Michelangelo’s in St. Peter’s Basilica), lamentations typically include three or more figures (such as the example below by Sandro Botticelli that shows a crowd of eight mourners gathered around Christ’s dead body).
Unlike Bellni’s whose background is entirely void of other figures, Bellini’s crucifixion in the Museo Correr shows Mary and John in the foreground, with various characters populating the landscape behind them.
These background figures stand alone or in pairs or, in the case of the figures in the center of the painting, in a group of three. They are walking, talking, working—all of this action contributing to a sense of commotion. The landscape in Bellini’s Brera Pietà, in contrast, is unpopulated and therefore very still.
In the course of his long career, Bellini produced many lamentations and pietàs. He excelled at producing poignant images of Christ’s dead body that could elicit pity and compassion from viewers.
His contemporary, Antonello da Messina, was also known for producing such images. Both were active in Venice and were influenced by one another.
Although today Da Messina’s works are often considered to be more intimate, the Brera Pietà demonstrates Bellini’s capacity for producing works that could facilitate focused and profound contemplation.
A tight squeeze
In Bellini’s Pietà, the grey sky presses down from above, while the top of a grey marble sarcophagus pushes up from below. The landscape behind is also condensed, as though it is being squeezed between these two grey horizontal bookends.
Though not an accurate depiction, the city at the far end of the landscape on the left represents Jerusalem. The place of Christ, Mary, and John relative to this landscape is hard to make out, but they are separated from it by virtue of being placed inside the sarcophagus close to the foreground.
The close-up, tightly framed composition of this painting was often used in Renaissance art to create a more intimate atmosphere for contemplation, and to help make the viewer feel as though they are sharing a space with the depicted figures. The dulled tones of the landscape and sky ensure there is no distraction from the central figural composition.
Cry with us
The sense of the viewer being inside the painting with the depicted figures and sharing their experiences, was an important aspect of late medieval devotion. During prayer, people were encouraged to imagine themselves present at sacred events. To aid this effort, artists tried to make these events feel present for viewers. By cropping the scene, and focusing on the experiences of just three protagonists, Bellini makes the viewer feel part like a participant of the scene.
But the active role of the viewer in this painting is also made explicit. On the edge of the tomb, we see an illusionistic strip of paper (cartellino) painted under Christ’s left hand that reads:
HAEC FERE QVVM GEMITVS TURGENTIA LVMINA PROMANT BELLINI POTERAT FLERE IOANNIS OPVS
When these swollen eyes evoke sighs, this work by Giovanni Bellini could shed tears.
The inscription describes the ideal relationship between the viewer and the work of art: the crying in the painting (“these swollen eyes”) will make the viewer lament (“evoke sighs”), and the viewer’s crying will in turn make the painting cry (“shed tears”). Giovanni Bellini’s name is referenced directly to signal that his skill as a painter has helped to facilitate this affecting encounter.
Renaissance viewers were encouraged to experience strong emotions in front of works of art. Writers of devotional handbooks and popular contemporary preachers frequently called for people to commune with works of art and to feel in close contact with them because they believed images could aid devotional contemplation by helping viewers to visualize biblical narratives.
One way for viewers to commune with the sacred figures represented in a work of art was by mimicking their actions and emotions. This is why the inscription on the Brera Pietà anticipates that viewers will cry just as John and the Virgin are crying. The tears that fall from the eyes of John and the Virgin function as exempla to prompt our own.
Other details are also represented realistically: Christ’s hair is delicately curled; his cheeks are hollow; both Mary’s and John’s eyes are red. Bellini has deliberately included these elements to allow viewers to immediately recognize the humanity of these figures.
Attention to details
To help elicit a heightened affective response from viewers, Bellini pays close attention to the details of Christ’s dead body. The cavernous wounds on Christ’s hands (through which the nails of the cross had very recently been driven) are presented frontally, in the center-bottom and center-proper of the composition.
Blood flows down his torso from the gaping wound in his chest (inflicted by the Lance of Longinus). Blood also streams from the head wounds inflicted by the sharp thorns of his crown and falls in droplets down his gaunt cheek. Meanwhile, blood accumulates in his veins making them protrude along his left arm.
All this blood is depicted to remind viewers of the ritual of the Eucharist and the ultimate sacrifice (for the sins of mankind) that it commemorates. The four hands positioned around the wounds from the nails and the wound from the Lance unify the three figures and bring attention to Christ’s wounds at the center of the composition.
All of these details remind us that Christ the Redeemer died as a man. We are intended to feel intense compassion and empathy because we recognize his suffering as our own. But Bellini’s painting is so compelling because we also feel intense compassion and empathy for the two mourners—especially the Virgin, who, as co-Redemptrix, shared in Christ’s suffering and served a vital role in human redemption.
Bellini zooms in on three figures—the Virgin Mary, Christ, and John—to create a sense of our being with them, within the cropped frame. The corporeal details that we see from this position are all the more affecting as a result of our proximity, and, like the painting as a whole, they demand our immediate and sustained attention.
 Unfortunately, we do not know the full provenance of this remarkable Renaissance painting. We do, however, know that it was made in Venice sometime around 1460; that it was housed for a while in the Sampieri collection, Bologna; and that in 1811 it was donated to the Pinacoteca di Brera gallery, Milan, by Eugène de Beauharnais.
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
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