This Pietà (figure 1) stands out in Saint Catherine’s Cemetery in Moscow, Pennsylvania. I am treating it as a free-standing work rather than as a monument only because it is not clear to me that it is in fact someone’s monument, or if so, whose it is. But it is not to be missed.
The work has to be considered in two ways, separately. First, there is the obvious subject of the Pietà, which is the generic name for depictions of Mary cradling the deposed body of the crucified Jesus. Probably we’re most familiar with Michelangelo’s (figure 3).
Separate from this but connected is the framing stonework which may or may not be intended as literally being part of the depicted scene. This frame is effectively two slabs rather taller than wide (and maybe ten inches thick) between which rests, on a foundation, a cube of stone. The overall effect of this frame is something like a throne with the cube notionally covered by a draped cloth that exhibits regular omega folds (see, e.g., figure 2). Figures and cube are carved from the same block.
Turning to the figures, Mary rises above Jesus; she would seem to be kneeling; Jesus, by contrast, is effectively sitting in the throne and falling back into her arms. There is a theological point to his being between her legs having to do symbolism of his birth and his humanity (figures 1, 3). Mary’s posture indicates, I think, that she has received his body with both hands but it is now slipping towards her left, and only that hand must sustain him. His arms fall, dead with open hands, into his lap. His head falls back onto Mary’s left shoulder. Her right hand, not needed to support his body, has been forgotten and rests on his shoulder loosely. It is possible the artist imagines her to be about to caress his face with her right hand.
Mary’s head is bent forward and to her left so that it is closer to, and looks down upon, Jesus’ face. She wears a veil and long robes, he wears only a loin cloth. Lastly, and most interestingly, his forelegs dangle down from the throne, in a consciously loose way that reproduces the one-foot-over-the-other posture in which they were nailed to the cross, an effective conceit (figure 4).
The two feet and Jesus’ left hand exhibit wounds from the nails. One must be understood in the right hand, but I was dubious of having found it by feeling the palm with my finger. The only articulation of the two slabs are what look like thistle designs repeated at the four corners.
The optimal view, I think, is from over Jesus’ right shoulder (figure 5).
Typically the Pietà is envisioned as happening on Golgotha, and thus takes place on stony ground, as in Michelangelo’s work (figure 3) or at any rate on the ground. This is clearly not the case here.
One may then ask if the framework, and the impression it gives of being a throne is not simply a geometrically abstract frame that allows the bodies to be posed as the artist wishes them to be. We would then read the cloth on the seat as a geometrical articulation of what would otherwise be empty flat surfaces. The floral decoration would just be abstractly intended as, once again, breaking up large empty planes.
And finally, maybe a cigar is a cigar here, and the geometric blocks of the framework are intended to be read as a throne. When I say this I don’t suggest that the artist imagines someone lugged a real, giant throne up Golgotha; rather, the ‘throne’ is half way between being an expedient framework and by contrast being deliberately worked into a throne as a symbol of majesty of even the dead Jesus.
At this point I have no more for you and I throw up my hands. Still, even if the Moscow Pietà does not rise to the level of Michelangelo’s, it is a thoughtfully designed, competently executed work, not without an awareness of the theological import of the scene. The stone (limestone?) is beginning to crack and spall, and I would urge the crypt keeper to invest in some conservation for a one-off work of art.