This life-size terracotta head of a dead Christ in the round probably comes from a life-size modello for a stone group of the Virgin of Sorrows. The end of the Middle Ages was marked by the proliferation, in churches, of life-size carved groups of the Virgin of Sorrows holding her dead son on her knees. Together with the Lamentations over the Dead Christ and the Entombment, it was one of the most popular iconographic types of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sculpture.
The head of Christ, with closed eyes and half-open mouth, is supported by a hand, probably that of the Virgin. This is not an independent study but a fragment of a sculptural group. The lower part of the neck has partially been completed with plaster, probably at the request of a previous owner. The fracture lines, especially on the right side, suggest that the head was violently and deliberately separated from the body following a blow to the side of the skull. Christ’s nose is partly broken. The museum acquired this head in 1966 from the widow of the collector Bálint Varró; its provenance before that is unknown. When it entered the museum, it was noticed that it still showed traces of semi-lapidified soil and sand, suggesting that it had been buried for a long time or at least spent time in contact with the ground, perhaps following an act of vandalism during the French Revolution (see Bulletin du musée hongrois des Beaux-Arts 54 [Budapest, 1980], 55–65).
This head presents a mixture of realism and lyricism: the face, although idealised, is emaciated, with protruding cheekbones and slightly contracted brow bones, as if they had not yet completely relaxed. But the features are soothed: the sculptor did not represent any obvious signs of a death that occurred after intense suffering. The mouth is ajar, as if he had fallen asleep or had just expired; this ambiguity accentuates the moving character of the statue.
The movement of the hair, which stands out from the right side of the skull in supple locks held by the hand of the Virgin, suggests the horizontal inclination of the head in a position close to that of many sixteenth-century Champagne Virgins of Sorrows (for example, that of Saint-Aventin church in Creney-près-Troyes). In her work on Renaissance sculpture in Champagne, Marion Boudon-Machuel identifies a type of Virgins of Sorrows, which presents a clear break with earlier types: in these compositions, the faces are soothed and iconographic details such as nails or pincers, that were present in previous types, have disappeared; the crown of thorns, here too are absent from Christ’s forehead, lies there at the feet of the Virgin (see Marion Boudon-Machuel, Des âmes drapées de pierre. Sculpture en Champagne à la Renaissance [Souls draped in stone. Sculpture in Champagne in the Renaissance], Tours: Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2017, 130–31, 262–63, 270–71.)
These unique variations around the same type are indirectly derived from Michelangelo’s Pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (1498–1499). This sculpture was the reference model for European Pietàs throughout the sixteenth century. It was known in France by a plaster copy located in the upper Saint-Saturnin Chapel of the castle of Fontainebleau, made from a mould, which Primaticcio brought back from Rome in 1546. This model may have been transmitted to Champagne by Dominique Florentin or one of the sculptors from Champagne who worked in Fontainebleau.
But unlike Michelangelo’s Pietà and the Virgins of Sorrows in Champagne, where the Virgin supports the back of Christ, letting his neck bend under the weight of his dangling head, here a hand supports the head of Christ: this iconographic peculiarity is linked rather to the French Gothic tradition of the fifteenth century and the very beginning of the sixteenth century.
The head in Budapest has also been linked to the art of Germain Pilon, one of the major sculptors of the Renaissance in France, by comparison with the recumbent statue of King Henry II in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the Christ in the tomb carved of stone around 1540–1560, held in the Musée du Louvre, and also with the Entombment in the Church of Verteuil, attributed to Germain Pilon. These comparisons are based on the physiognomy of Christ: the long and thin face, the fine nose, the wavy hair and the beard are executed in a very similar way. The proximity to Germain Pilon is also reinforced by the detail of the hand supporting the head of Christ: the slender, spread fingers with the last knuckles lightly pressed against the head evoke the Virgin of Sorrows by Germain Pilon (1586) for the Valois Rotunda, built at the request of Catherine de Medici, wife of Henri II, in the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
Sculptors frequently used terracotta to execute preparatory models in reduced or in full-size, before making a life-size group in stone. In 2019, after long research, a terracotta group was thus recognized as Michelangelo’s modello for the Pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. As for French Renaissance sculpture, the Musée du Louvre has terracotta models by Germain Pilon for the sculptures of the Valois Rotunda, both in reduced size (the modello for the recumbent statue of Henri II) and life-size (the model for the Virgin of Sorrows of 1586).
Thanks to thermoluminescence, a technique, which consists in measuring the time elapsed since the firing of an object, it is possible to date the ceramics approximately: the analysis of this head shows that it was made between 1540 and 1640.
Balogh, Jolán, Katalog der ausländischen Bildwerke des Museums der bildenden Künste in Budapest, IV – XVIII. Jahrhundert: 1. Textband Bd. 1, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1975, p. 189., no. 261.
This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.
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