Little is known about the creator of this extraordinary painting that originally hung in the Collegiate Church of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in Provence, once the stronghold of Avignon’s cardinals. Enguerrand Quarton is thought to have been born and trained around Laon in northern France and he may have travelled to, or worked in, the Low Countries. Records show that he arrived in Provence in 1444 and as there is no further mention of him after 1466, he is believed to have perished in a plague epidemic of that year.
One of few certainties about him is that during his time in Provence he painted a spectacular Coronation of the Virgin (Musée de la Hospice, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon) for the Carthusian monastery in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and based on stylistic similarities with that work, this Pietà is now considered to be by Quarton.
The scene is a unique interpretation of the Pietà, which usually features the Virgin mourning over the body of Christ. But Quarton adds three other figures: John the Evangelist portrayed as a young man with long hair and a gentle face who tentatively holds Christ’s head; Mary Magdalene who weeps, wiping her eyes with her colourful cloak; and to the left, kneeling and dressed as a church canon, is the painting’s donor who is though to be Jean de Montagnac, the same man who commissioned Quarton’s ‘Coronation’.
Rather than telling a story, the Pietà was usually intended as a devotional aid, a moving and didactic biblical scene upon which a worshipper could focus their prayers. In the medieval world, where few were literate, religious images were integral to worship and here Quarton visualises the inner world of this pious canon. Mixing reality and faith, he inhabits the same pictorial space as the holy Pietà, providing the viewer with an example of the rewards of sincere devotion. The magical, otherworldly nature of the scene is enhanced by the flat gold background, the holy figure’s embossed haloes (which name each of them), the golden aura emanating from Christ’s head and the minimalist landscape featuring little beside a distant silhouette of Jerusalem.
This type of religious commission – a major work intended to hang in a church and featuring an identifiable donor – was common among the wealthy and aristocratic classes. For the faithful, it was not only a way to help guarantee their place in heaven, it was also a sanctioned way to publicly display their piety, status and affluence.
Though no details are known of Quarton’s training, he was clearly familiar with a well-known 15th century guide for artists by the Italian Cennino Cennini called The Book of Art. For instance, in setting out the theory of proportion for bodies Cennini wrote: ‘A man’s body corresponds to the length of his arms in the form of a cross. His hands and arms extended reach the middle of the thigh… He has one rib less that women, on the left side’; rules clearly evident here in Christ’s body.
To these basic artistic rules, Quarton adds monumentality, strong linear drawing and emotional intensity, all influences of the work of Northern European painters, such as Rogier van der Weyden. However, Quarton deepens the effects by simplifying forms and details and by exaggerating movements; note the mourner’s heads which each bow at slightly different angles, Christ’s dramatically elongated body and the figure’s expressive, somewhat distorted fingers, which all heighten the emotion of the scene. The resulting work is completely unique, a synthesis of many artistic influences and the distinctive style of Quarton.
c1455 Rogier van der Weyden: Portrait of a Lady, Washington, National Gallery of Art
c1455–7 Domenico Veneziano: Annunciation (from St Lucy altarpiece) Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum