Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Image of Pity

Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)
Mass of St. Gregory C. 1510
Oil on wood
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Giovanni Bellini (1426-1516)
Dead Christ in the sepulchre c. 1460
Tempera on panel
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan

According to Emile Male, in the late Middle Ages, "the Passion became the chief concern of the Christian soul". (Religious Art in France: the late Middle Ages (1986), at page 83).

The theme of the Passion as a theme for meditation and prayer increased in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

One of the most popular devotional images was the Mass of Saint Pope Gregory the Great, the Man of Sorrows or the Image of Pity (imago pietatis).

The devotion is associated with Devotion to the Wounds of Christ.

The usual form is a half-length figure, upright in the tomb, with eyes open or closed, and arms folded to show the wounds.

The image probably originated in the East, probably before the twelfth century.

The devotion was based on an icon (now lost) which was in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, one of the seven pilgrimage churches in Rome.

The legend which attached to the icon in Santa Croce was that while Pope Gregory the Great was celebrating Mass in the Church of Santa Croce, and was dismayed to find an unbeliever among his flock. He prayed for a sign to confirm the reality of the Atonement and its re-enactment in the Mass. In response, an image of Christ with the Instruments of the Passion appeared above the altar.The image was that of Christ in his tomb, displaying his Wounds and surrounded by implements of the Passion. St Gregory had an icon made which illustrated the vision.

Although the icon in Santa Croce was lost, it was widely copied and mass reproduced.

The devotion was fostered by many but especially by the Franciscan Order.


  1. The icon at Santa Croce in Rome was not lost. I live at Santa Croce and just today showed the icon to a visitor.

  2. All of the text books show it as missing. If it is not, then it sounds as if you`ve got a great article there.

    I hope it is the original that`s still there at Santa Croce. It would be fitting that such a great icon was still in its original setting after all the centuries.