Shrieks of horror and lamentation echo in the dark, cold silence. Mary Magdalen, her solid, muscular body flying, whips out heavy clothing behind her. Veil, shawl and gown cannot reign in the violent, forward impulse. Her eyes incline down at the dead Christ, as her left leg lunges ahead, suspended in motion. Where has she come from? Her piercing screams issue from a mouth opened past possibility, just as disbelief and horror stab her heart beyond endurance. She sees her murdered Lord and, like a storm, cannot be contained. Her passion and pain explode. The Magdalen is the howl of that pain.
The voluptuous torso apparent under heavy robes, the circles of her full breasts and the striding strong legs breathe physicality and humanness into the terracotta statue. It is part of the group called Le Marie Piangente sul Cristo Morto (1463) by Nicolò dell'Arca, in the church of Santa Maria della Vita (Via Clavature, 10), just a few steps away from Piazza Maggiore. Mary Magdalen's slender face is refined, her nose, long and thin, her hair modestly covered with the veil soaring out behind her. Both arms are bent back and the crick of each elbow catches the flowing garments. Left hand is palm forward, fully opened in incredulity. The right hand's rigid, bent fingers would grab, if they could, another hand, someone, to ease the pain.
The dramatic passion of Mary Magdalen grips me as I approach the seven life-size terracotta shapes in their dark, corner chapel to the right of the altar. Then I share the agony that seizes each of the grieving figures.
To Mary Magdalen's right is Mary of Cleofe. She too is moving violently forward, but the position of her hands says, "I cannot look." She would like to shield her eyes from the horror, but they are opened wide, full of fear. Her body swerves toward the right as she runs and stops short of the Christ stretched out below. Her gown flows to the right following the swerving curve of her moving body, right leg pitched forward. Her headpiece reflects the sudden stop as flaps fly out in all directions. Her crying eyes are swollen and her cheeks frozen, flexed, their deep creases accentuating the wailing mouth. She tries to say something, his name, perhaps. She would be his aunt, wife of the brother of Christ's mother.
Next to her young John the Beloved Apostle stands silently immobile. Chin rests on right hand, while left arm and hand lay under his cloak, supporting the right elbow. His narrow face, framed by softly curling, chin-length hair, represses the emotional pain and sorrow. He is crying inside though. He would like to turn away, pull the cloak that he already uses to shield his right side, up over his eyes. Then the tears might escape freely.
On John's right is Mary, Jesus' mother. She inhales. Her shoulders are up, hands folded in front, squeezing up close to her abdomen. The exhalation will never come. The sorrow and pain of the mother will never be released. Her mouth is open, but nothing escapes. The wrinkled forehead, raised eyebrows, closed eyes, and fleshy cheeks communicate maturity. Her heavy clothing hangs motionlessly, just as the grief-filled moment hangs suspended in eternity, unrelieved.
Mary Salome, the mother of John the Evangelist cringes next to Christ's mother. Her open mouth emits a deep, animal-like moan that emerges from the center of her being. Her crouched position, with flexed, tense hands on upper legs, keeps her planted in place. Her substantial robes do not move. The horror and disbelief cry out from her soul as she seems caught folding into the ground.
Joseph of Arimathea looks out, not down at the Christ figure like the others. He holds a short hammer in his right hand. A pair of long-handled pliers hangs on his belt, the claw-like talons slightly open. His role is a practical one as he kneels down at the head of Christ. Pilate has granted him custody of the Savior's body, which he will place in his own sepulcher. The Sabbath is quickly approaching and, according to the law, his duty must be carried out with haste. Joseph wears a heavy tunic with precise tucks that fall neatly over hefty chest, ample abdomen and wide waist. He is a decisive man, used to controlling the situation. His neatly trimmed, curly beard, mustache and hat frame a serious face, one not outwardly emotional. He has a job to do. His left hand grasps the belt in a somewhat posed official manner.
Christ, the central figure lies on a body-length plank covered with a scallop-edged linen cloth. His head rests on a tasseled pillow and bearded face seems peacefully asleep. Arms rest on still torso, while hands cross over the pelvis, which is covered by a light, gauzy cloth. His lightness, silence and serenity form the eye of the storm, around which the action and emotion of the group erupt.
Also known as La Pietà, the figures represent the group of Mary's that visit the sepulcher and to whom Christ appears after his death. Each gospel recounts the events differently, and the persons present are not consistent. However, Mary Magdalen, perhaps an important female apostle of Christ, plays a significant role in each account. Il Compianto, another name given to this type of devotional representation, is thought to be a later manifestation of the medieval mystery play or dramatic Easter matins service at convents and monasteries throughout Europe. The action and emotion portrayed was meant to move the faithful to that same grief. (Compare with Il Compianto su Cristo Morto by Alfonso Lombardi (1497-1537), in the Cathedral of San Pietro in Via Indipendenza, 7 and The Pietà by Vincenzo Onofri (beginning of sixteenth century) in the basilica of San Petronio, Piazza Maggiore.)
Terracotta was the characteristic medium for the compianti. The sculptors working in Bologna during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were often constricted to use it because of the unavailability of marble and other hard stone. However, the material's softness permitted great dramatic expression and fine detail. An eloquent portrait of an individual could emerge from the mass of clay, his precise physical characteristics and richly textured and elaborately chiseled garments. These figures of Nicolò dell'Arca attest to that eloquence. Originally painted, they are now left, for the most part, in their natural, rosy terracotta simplicity.
I leave the hollow, dark silence of Santa Maria della Vita, the shriek of Mary Magdalen still echoing inside my ears and I squint outside the door as the afternoon sunlight blinds me for a second. Standing on the top step, I notice the indigent, who always begs change from anyone happening by. He is a middle-aged man, short, his dark, longish hair tangled, his huge, black, imploring eyes searching for pity. I think back to the church's origin in the thirteenth century, when the Disciplinati community of laymen arrived in Bologna from Perugia. Besides practicing their extreme example of penance and discipline, they aided sick indigents and travelers. Poverty and sickness - a timeless story. I move on, just like everyone else he implores . . . he will wait for our next pass though . . . "l'elemosina, signora, per carità . . . grazie" . . .
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