The Virgin Mary has collapsed with grief after learning that Christ, her son, has accepted his inevitable death as the will of God and is making to leave for Jerusalem. The episode is not recorded in the Bible, but it appears in a fourteenth-century German devotional text as well as in Passion plays, specifically one performed in the town of Augsburg. The Augsburg play included a series of exchanges between Christ and his mother, with Christ reassuring her that he must accept his fate as she makes emotional pleas for him to avoid it.
Altdorfer’s fascination with nature reflected a growing trend for depicting the natural world in detail and abundance, leading eventually to the emergence of landscape painting as an independent subject, rather than just a background. This panel is dominated by an enormous tree depicted in a wild and unruly state. Beyond the arch, a great swirling cloud glows red in the evening light – an allusion to the blood Christ shed at the Crucifixion.
The painting shows Christ, who had accepted his inevitable death as the will of God, comforting his mother, the Virgin Mary. Her grief is so intense that she has collapsed to the ground, where she is supported by Mary Magdalene. The women’s draperies are painted with such fluidity that they have the quality of rippling waves, mirroring the women’s anxiety and anguish. The Virgin’s white veil is the most disturbed of all the fabrics, drawing attention to her grim expression. Christ, however, serenely blesses his mother with his right hand. To the right of the scene is Saint John the Evangelist, equally calm, his expression compassionate as he gazes at the women. Next to Saint John is Saint Peter, shown as an elderly man, raising his hand in agitation, or perhaps farewell as the apostles separate.
The episode is not recorded in the Bible, but it is found in two fourteenth-century devotional texts: one Italian (Pseudo-Bonaventura’s Meditations on the Life of Christ) and the other German (Brother Phillipp the Carthusian’s Marienleben, which dates to about 1330). Both reflect a type of spirituality which emerged in the fourteenth century, encouraged by figures like Saint Francis of Assisi, which emphasised empathy with Christ’s suffering. Intimate stories of personal grief, like that of Christ taking leave of his mother, were appropriately relatable.
In the Marienleben, this episode was followed by Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Riding on a donkey to emphasise his humility, Christ approached the city knowing that he would be arrested and killed. The event was reenacted on Palm Sunday in churches across Europe, but in Regensburg, where Altdorfer lived, the wooden sculpture of Christ riding a donkey was preceded by two scholars (who were, at this time, always men) dressed as the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. Their role was to read lamentations beneath a reconstruction of Christ’s Crucifix.
Altdorfer may have been inspired by these liturgical rituals as well as the even more theatrical Passion plays (dramatic recreations of Christ’s trial and death at the Crucifixion). We know that in the town of Augsburg, the Passion play featured emotional exchanges between Christ, Mary and her companions: as the women lament and plead with Christ to evade death, he responds that he ‘must fulfil the Scriptures and also my father’s will’ by dying. He blesses his mother, as in Altdorfer’s painting, and instructs Peter and John the Evangelist to prepare for the Last Supper. Altdorfer probably had both the Passion play and the Palm Sunday procession in mind when making this work. Indeed, Christ’s dress and appearance resemble those of the sculpted Christs used in the processions – only his hands and feet are visible beneath a long simple tunic.
Altdorfer’s fascination with nature reflected a growing trend in painting for depicting the natural world in detail and abundance, leading eventually to the emergence of landscape painting as an independent subject, rather than just a background. This panel is dominated by an enormous tree, depicted in a wild and unruly state. The rocky foreground is painted in great detail – each stone is defined, with some cast in shadow by the women’s figures. The women themselves are grouped beneath an abandoned archway overgrown with foliage; it is as if the forest is taking over. On the rounded column topped by the spiked cone is a scene of the Flagellation, a foretaste of Christ’s torture before his death: his fate is so inescapable that it is carved in stone. Beyond the arch, a great swirling cloud glows red in the evening light – an allusion to the blood Christ shed at the Crucifixion.
The group of comparatively minute kneeling figures at the bottom right corner are most likely members of the family that commissioned the painting, but they are, as yet, unidentified.
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