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Francesco Francia, The Pietà

Key facts
Full title The Pietà
Artist Francesco Francia
Artist dates about 1447 - 1517
Group The Buonvisi Altarpiece
Date made 1510-12
Medium and support Oil on wood
Dimensions 94 × 184.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1841
Inventory number NG180
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
The Pietà
Francesco Francia

This semicircular painting forms the upper part of the altarpiece painted for the Buonvisi family chapel in the church of S. Frediano in Lucca.

The Virgin Mary grieves over the body of her son Christ, laid across her lap, her eyelids red and puffy from weeping. An angel holds Christ’s head; another, hands joined in prayer, looks at the wounds on his feet. These were made by the nails that attached him to the Cross on which he was crucified. The angel at Christ’s head is the only figure in either part of the altarpiece to directly meet our gaze, drawing our attention to Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

The main part of the altarpiece shows the young Virgin enthroned with the infant Christ and her mother, Saint Anne, accompanied by saints. In that painting, the Virgin’s thoughts are already on the destiny awaiting her son, which we see here, in the scene above.

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The Buonvisi Altarpiece


This altarpiece was painted for the Buonvisi Chapel in the church of S. Frediano in Lucca. It shows the Virgin Mary with her mother, Saint Anne, and the infant Christ enthroned and surrounded by saints, from left to right: Saint Sebastian, Saint Paul, Saint Lawrence and Saint Benedict.

In the main panel, the young Virgin sits holding her baby, thinking about his future sacrifice. The scene carved on the pillar behind her head represents the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 2), when God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son but at the last moment supplied a lamb instead. In Francia’s altarpiece, the infant John the Baptist’s banner reads ‘ECCE AGNUS DEI’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God’). His message is that Christ must be sacrificed but that no lamb will be exchanged in his place.

In the semicircular panel above the main panel, the elderly Virgin grieves over the lifeless body of her son who has been sacrificed for the salvation of mankind.