Art Term Tuesday: Pietà

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Over the winter holidays I traveled to Italy and, like every tourist, I made the pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to see Michelangelo’s Pietà. Even though I was looking through the Plexiglas barrier at a distance, I was mesmerized by Michelangelo’s mind-blowing handling of marble and the emotion he conveys in stone. Forming a pyramidal shape, the Madonna gazes down at the lifeless body of Christ held in her lap. Although a moment of mourning, her calm demeanor reveals acceptance. She extends her left arm out in a gesture that invites us to share in this intimate moment.  

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian, 1475-1564. The Pietà. Marble, 1498-99. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Sachi Yanari-Rizzo. 

There have been many approaches to the subject, Michelangelo himself explored it at least three times, however, the Vatican Pietà’s composition is probably the most recognized version and continues to resonate with artists today. It is common for artists to intentionally borrow compositions and refashion the imagery. In doing so, they invoke the visual power of its source. In the FWMoA’s permanent collection, the works of Carlos Barberena and Neal Harrington evoke this classic composition tradition.  

Born in Granada, Nicaragua, Carlos Barberena grew up in an artistic family. He left the country for Costa Rica during the Civil War. Barberena traveled to Mexico to learn more about printmaking and became inspired by the political works of José Guadalupe Posada. In 2008 he moved to United States and is based in Chicago, where he gained further experience at Expression Graphics. Currently, he is busy running Bandolero Press and La Calaca Press. He is also a member of Instituto de Gráfico de Chicago.  

Barberena enjoys making art about art. He created an entire Master Print series in which he re-imagined compositions by famous artists, such as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (after Dürer) and La McMona (reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa). In these works he shares Posada’s satirical tone by infusing pop culture elements into otherwise familiar master works.   

Barberena’s Santo Pollero is from the Santitos (Saints) portfolio organized by Arceo Press in Chicago. The artist explained, “I was inspired by the stories of immigrants reporting being aided by a young person—a priest—with water, food, medical attention and even transportation.”i The title, Santo Pollero, refers to Father Toribio Romo, who was a Mexican priest killed during the Cristero War in 1928 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Also known as el Padre Pollero and the Holy Coyote (coyote is slang for human smugglers), he is recognized as the patron saint of migrants. He purportedly appears to migrants as a priest or an everyday person during moments of need.  

Carlos Barberena, Nicaraguan, b. 1972. Santo Pollero from Santitos portfolio. Linocut on paper, 2012. Purchase, 2018.177. Image courtesy of FWMoA.  

Santo Pollero is set in a Southwest desert landscape with a lone cactus; the McDonalds golden arches, a sign of capitalism; and a skull, presaging death. Like Michelangelo’s Pietà, Barberena elicits compassion from the viewer. Clad in a baseball cap and gym shoes, a man cradles and offers water to an anguished person he’s found. Rays emanate from behind his head like a halo. His shirt displays a prominent NMD patch. The initials stand for No More Deaths, which is a humanitarian group advocating immigration reform to eliminate the deaths of migrants in the desert. 

The artist commented, “My idea was making a piece that uses this iconic composition but also bringing it to a contemporary landscape with a social political commentary. . . I wanted to create an emotional scene that provokes compassion and empathy with the immigrants and creates awareness about the humanitarian crisis that was (still) going on at the US-Mexico border.”ii 

Neal Harrington, American, b. 1973. In the Pines from Bootlegger’s Ballad Series. Woodcut with India ink washes on paper, 2015. Purchase, 2022.02. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

Neal Harrington was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and received his BFA from the University of South Dakota and his MFA from Wichita State University, at which time he switched from painting to printmaking. He is currently associate professor of art and director of the Norman Hall Art Gallery at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. 

Harrington says that he is drawn to Americana—tall tales, blues, and blue grass music. He describes his work as if comic artist R. Crumb met regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. The title In the Pines can allude to the camp site set in the moonlit alpine landscape. The print is from the Bootlegger’s Ballad Series, and In the Pines is also the name of an old American folk song that has been passed down through time in its various renditions since 1870. Folk and blues singer Lead Belly and grunge band Nirvana have made recordings. 

There is nothing shy about Harrington’s work. It is bold and commanding in its stark black and white contrasts. His figure placement strongly resembles Michelangelo’s sculpture. Our male subject, however, is simply passed out or has fallen asleep with the remains of a home brewed bottle of XX moonshine spilling onto the ground. A woman assumes the pose of Michelangelo’s Madonna and is lit by radiant beams of light, albeit from a burning camping lantern. Given his physical condition, it is unlikely that the female caregiver is real, but rather dreamt.  

Harrington described seeing a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà in a cathedral in St. Louis. He recalled, “Even as a replica, I was blown away by the power of the composition. I wanted to meld the powerful, caring message that this work has with my Bootlegger’s Ballads Series.”iii Without the Madonna-inspired figure the viewer’s reaction to the subject might be disapproving. With eyes shut, her expression is impassive. She doesn’t pass judgment and maybe encourages us to feel empathy towards this man’s solitary life in the woods. 

Barberena and Harrington’s prints demonstrate that even in secular subjects, the Pietà composition can be used as a device that can subtly add additional meaning to their works. 

i Carlos Barberena, email, February 21, 2022. 

ii Carlos Barberena, email, February 21, 2022. 

iii Neal Harrington, email, February 18, 2022. 

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