This refined and well-preserved panel is a rare surviving example of early fifteenth-century Valencian painting, a period of unparalleled artistic achievement in the region, often referred to as the 'Valencian Golden Age'. By the late fourteenth century, Valencia had become the most important city and trading harbour in Aragon, a kingdom then still independent from Castile and ruling over vast territories scattered across the Mediterranean: Mallorca, Sicily, Sardinia, and the Kingdom of Naples. As such, Valencia became a wealthy cosmopolitan centre that fostered artistic creation, especially painting. The city acted as a powerful magnet for patrons and artists from all over Europe, such as the Florentine painter Gherardo Starmina, who journeyed and worked there for a few years. Valencia's talented and inspired artists ultimately formulated one of the most accomplished versions of the International Gothic style that was then spreading across the continent.
Foremost among these artists was Gonçal Peris Sarrià. Born to a family of painters, Peris Sarrià certainly trained under Pere Nicolau, then the leading figure of the Valencian International Gothic. Upon his master's death in 1408, he set up a successful studio in the city, receiving numerous prestigious commissions from important citizens as well as secular and religious authorities, such as the governor of Valencia and the bishops of Valencia and Barcelona. His limited extant oeuvre includes a group of four elegant fantasy portraits of the Aragonese kings, from a cycle commissioned in 1427 and meant to adorn the Council chamber of the Valencian town hall.
More modest in dimensions, an exquisite jewel-like panel showing the Veronica of the Virgin with The Annunciation on its reverse (Valencia, Museo de Bellas Artes) bears striking resemblance to the present picture. In both works, the Virgin's elegantly tilted face is virtually identical, with the same elongated shape, semi-closed almond eyes, slender nose and pursed lips. Similarly, the decorative treatment of the drapery points decisively to the same hand. In this virtuosic passage, the serpentine folds create an intricate pattern of lines while still retaining a sense of volume through subtle modelling. This new emphasis on three-dimensionality, combined, in the Pietà, with the uncompromising realism of Christ's dead body, testifies to the early influence of Flemish painting in Aragon, a style that Peris Sarrià was one of the first to incorporate to his art.
Further stylistic and technical parallels may be drawn when comparing the Pietà with a large polyptych by Peris Sarrià, the Altarpiece of Saint Martin, with Saint Ursula and Saint Anthony Abbot, commissioned in 1443 by Berenguer Martì de Torres for the Carthusian monastery of Valencia (Valencia, Museo de Bellas Artes). The rocky ground under Martin's horse, with its winding splits and patches of grass made of single, energetic curved strokes of paint, is rendered in the exact same distinctive way in the Pietà. Finally, in both paintings, the artist brilliantly exploits the decorative potential of the gold background through very similar and sophisticated punchwork. Most notably, the rich and ornate halos consist of delicate vine leaf motifs set against a background of incised dots. Particularly masterful and reminiscent of the most elaborate metalwork of the period, Peris Sarrià's halos are, according to Mauro Natale, 'the most beautiful halos that were then being made in Europe' (M. Natale, El Renacimiento Mediterraneo, Valencia, 2001, p. 27).
In this potent rendition of holy sorrow, Peris Sarrià combines two distinct iconographical traditions: the Pietà on the one hand, and the Instruments of the Passion or Arma Christi on the other. In a central pyramidal group, the Virgin, gently overlooks the stiff, slender, and vulnerable body of the martyred Christ, delicately wrapping it in a translucent shroud. Mary's expression, conveying both Her distress and Her acceptance of Christ's sacrifice, has a powerful emotional impact. The Virgin and Christ are surrounded by the instruments of the Passion, that is, the objects used during Christ's ordeal. From left to right: the lantern used in the night-time arrest of Christ, the cockerel of Peter's denial, the hammer used to nail Christ to the cross, the pincer used to remove the nails, the bloody leather straps, the rope and column to which Christ was tied during the Flagellation, the red spear that pierced his side, the scourge of the flagellation (behind the Virgin's halo), the Cross, the three dice with which the soldiers played for Christ's robe, the hand of Christ's tormentor making an obscene gesture during the mocking, the hand that slapped Christ in the face in front of the High Priest, the reed with a sponge dipped in vinegar, the ladder of the Deposition, from which hangs the vessel that contained the vinegar, Christ's seamless robe hanging from the cross, Judas's purse containing the 30 pieces of silver, the price of his betrayal, and finally the lances carried by the soldiers during the arrest.
This wide array of Arma Christi is assembled in a symbolic, resolutely non-narrative way, exposed almost as hieroglyphs meant to remind the viewer of each single step of the Passion, and thus foster his devotion. This type of imagery is in line with the new devotional practices then emerging at the time, which emphasised compassion for Christ's suffering. The influential writings of Ludolph of Saxony (died 1378) and Saint Bonaventura encouraged the worshipper to mentally re-enact the Passion and identify with the suffering of the Saviour. The Pietà's powerful charge of pathos epitomises this new religious sensibility.
The artist used further symbolism to reinforce his message. Daisies are growing on the inhospitable rock formation in the foreground. The Latin name for feverfew daisies, a medicinal plant used for its anti-inflammatory qualities, was Parthenium, meaning 'virgin', and daisies were a Marian flower, often linked to the protective role of the Virgin, thus particularly apt for a scene of the Pietà. The red flowers depicted nearby are likely to be a stylised rendition of pinks, also called nailflowers or cloves. Their resemblance to nails led to their association with the nails of the Crucifixion, incidentally the only major instrument of the Passion missing from this picture. The flower, with its red colour that echoes the blood of Christ, would thus stand for the absent nails (C. Fisher, The Medieval Flower Book, 2008, pp. 47, 96-7). On Mary's elaborate halo, the seven small circular motifs could refer to the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, one of which is the mourning shown in this scene. This learned symbolism implies the painting was intended for an erudite patron.
Whilst this subject is often found at the centre of predella panels in the large Spanish polyptychs of the period, it is more likely to have functioned as an autonomous work for private contemplation, and could have been placed in a home as much as in a family chapel or oratory. Although the physical evidence remains inconclusive, the possibility may be raised for the panel to have been slightly reduced at its upper and lower edges, which would explain why the gold pointillé border does not continue above the cross, framing the image.
We are grateful to Professor Mauro Natale of Geneva University and José Gómez Frechina, curator of Paintings at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Valencia, who have independently identified the Pietà as a work of Peris Sarrià, on the basis of photographs.