A "Lamentation" groups Christ's followers around his lifeless body, as in the picture above; a "Pietà" is a Lamentation in which the Virgin Mary alone cradles the body, most often in her lap as she sits on a chair or throne, as at right. Neither of these traditional subjects is specifically mentioned in the gospels, which say only that the body was taken down and entombed by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.1
Lamentations almost always include the Virgin Mary among other mourners, although this painting by Bellini has St. Mary Magdalene instead. The Magdalene is almost always included among the mourners, sometimes posed at Jesus' feet as in the picture above. St. John is also usually pictured. Others may include Joseph and Nicodemus, the various Mary's mentioned in the Passion narratives, and the "daughters of Jerusalem" whom Jesus addressed on the way to Calvary.2 In the picture above, Giotto includes all of these – the two officials are on the right, the daughters of Jerusalem are on the left, and John and the Mary's are ranged around the body. Reminders of the Crucifixion itself may also be included, as in Messina's painting.
It is usual for a Pietà to show the traditional five wounds on the hands, feet, and chest (example). This late example also portrays bloody knees, presumably scuffed from the three falls imagined in 19th-century Stations of the Cross.
Sometimes Mary is posed standing up, with just one arm holding up the body (example). The second picture at right is an unusual variation in which she seems to have replaced her son on the cross.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.
Giotto's fresco of the Lamentation in the Scrovegni Chapel. See the description page.