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Triptych of the Pietà, St John and St Mary Magdalene
Morales, Luis de and workshop
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Morales, Luis de and workshop

Badajoz (Spain), 1510 - Alcántara? (Spain), 1586

See author's file

Triptych of the Pietà, St John and St Mary Magdalene

Ca. 1570. Oil on panel.
Not on display

Large-format versions of the Virgin holding the dead body of Christ, like those at Badajoz Cathedral and at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, gave way in Morales’s oeuvre to smaller compositions on the same subject, with half-length figures shown on a striking background of rigorous black. Against this, the two figures and the upright of the cross are contrasted with strong lighting. The pentimenti revealed by technical studies of the numerous versions in this new format, with changes in the figures, in their anatomical details and in the cloth of the Virgin’s mantle or headgear, indicate Morales’s obsessive interest in this composition, with subtle variations also introduced in the physiognomy of the mother and child, or in the expression of grief and death.

The dead Christ in the arms of the Virgin, an iconography known as the Pietà or the Fifth Sorrow, had already had a long history when it was taken up in the sixteenth century by Morales, influenced by the works of the fifteenth-century Flemish primitives like Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464) and Hans Memling (c. 1440-1494), or those of the Italians of the same period, above all the Venetian masters. The realism of Flemish Gothic, with its particularly expressive treatment of grief and of the blood pouring from the wounds of the flagellation or the crown of thorns, was now joined in the works of the Extremaduran master by a sense of order and dignity redolent of the approach of the Italian artists. The evidence does not point so much towards the Renaissance classicism of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and his Pietà in the Vatican, which Morales probably did not know, but towards the closer and more modern expressiveness of the Christ figures of Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485-1547), whose works were known in Spain, and some of which already formed part of the Royal Collection by the mid-sixteenth century.

Morales’s interpretation of the dead Christ held by his mother, which is established in his painting as a counterpoint to the Virgin with the Child in her arms, is outstanding above all for the delicacy of the models, incorporeal and almost fragile in appearance, their silent, latent expressiveness enhanced by the restricted gamut of colour, which ranges from the transparent pallor of the flesh to the luminous blue and white of the Virgin’s mantle and coif. The artist moreover employed a technique of rigorously geometric precision in the cloths and the wood of the cross, which stands out at the same time against the gentle sfumato of the faces and hands of the figures. In this way, Morales achieved what may be one of the most perfect images of the Pietà in a sixteenth-century Europe that was already divided between the Protestant north and the Catholic south. He devised a perfect equilibrium between extreme grief and serenity, between the realism of the material and the purely spiritual, through human types of exquisite and profoundly meditated beauty, recognisable as exclusively his own thanks to a personal style which created no school but did produce a manner of painting that was his alone.

The Prado triptych presents a decisive alteration in the central scene that was revealed beneath the visible image in the technical documents obtained recently by methods that included infrared reflectography. As seen today, the Virgin is situated on the left and Christ on the right, with his head held by his mother’s left hand, whereas in the underlying composition, the body of the Virgin, also shown frontally, inclines her head to the left while holding that of her son, originally situated on the left of the panel, with her right hand. This initial design of the triptych is known to us from numerous workshop versions, but there is one panel by the master, smaller than the central one of the triptych and of considerable quality and expressive intensity, which also presents the figures in this way, though here they are very close together, without the space between the heads which appears in the underlying version of the Prado painting. In this delicate work, which has convincingly been dated between 1562 and 1565, the Virgin, very young and close to the model of the Polán Pietà, rests her left hand on the upper part of her son’s breast, as she does in one of the underdrawings of the Prado triptych. Nevertheless, an earlier date is suggested by the evident pleasure in the representation of materials and the care lavished on the details of the figures, with a technical richness in the use of pigments that produces all the shades of the beautiful colouring and the lighting contrasts (Text drawn from Mena Marqués, M. in: The Divine Morales, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2015, pp. 160-168).


Technical data

Inventory number
Morales, Luis de and workshop
Triptych of the Pietà, St John and St Mary Magdalene
Ca. 1570
Height: 84 cm; Width: 131 cm
Jaime Lameyer, Madrid, 1917; Gomensoro e Hijos, Montevideo (Uruguay), 1996; acquired by the State for the Museo del Prado, 1996.

Bibliography +

Lázaro Galdiano, José, Exposición de obras del Divino Morales, Casa Lacoste, Madrid, 1917, pp. 9, n. 1.

Trapier, Elizabeth du Gué, Luis de Morales and leonardesque influences in Spain, The Trustees, Nueva York, 1953.

Gaya Nuño, Juan Antonio, Luis de Morales, C.S.I.C. Instituto Diego Velázquez, Madrid, 1961.

Backsbacka, Ingjald, Luis de Morales, Helsingfors, Helsinki, 1962, pp. 187, n. A 12.

Martínez-Burgos García, Las tierras y los hombres del rey: Felipe II, un monarca y su época, Sociedad Estatal Commemoracion de Los Centenarios de Felipe II y Carlos V, Valladolid, 1998, pp. 460-61, n. 278.

Solís Rodriguez, Carmelo, Luis de Morales, Fundacion Caja de Badajoz, Badajoz, 1999, pp. 200-1, n. 22.

Portmann, Maria, L' image du corps dans l' art espagnol aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles, 2014, pp. 57,61 f.24.

Mena, Manuela, 'Luis de Morales. Tríptico de la Piedad, San Juan y Santa Maria Magdalena' En:, El Divino Morales, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2015, pp. 160-168 n.43.

Jover de Celis, M. Alba, L. Gayo, M. García-Máiquez, J, 'En el taller de Luis de Morales' En:, Luis de Morales, Diputación de Badajoz,, 2018, pp. 97-113 [98].

Other inventories +

Inv. Nuevas Adquisiciones (iniciado en 1856). Núm. 2392.

Exhibitions +

El Divino Morales
16.06.2016 - 25.09.2016

El Divino Morales
09.02.2016 - 16.05.2016

Las tierras y los hombres del rey
22.10.1998 - 10.01.1999

Update date: 11-02-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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