The Pietà Long-gone are the days when arguments of a philosophic-aesthetic nature associated the Pietà with the work of the Spanish sculptor, Juan de Juni (Santos, R., 1950) or, twenty years later, to another sculptor of the same nationality with affinities with Gregório Fernandes (Santos, R., 1970).

The undisputed recognition of this misunderstanding occurred with the decisive publication by the art historian, Robert Smith (1968), who listed the works produced by, and at that that point identified, the Benedictine sculptor, Frei Cipriano da Cruz. The group of sculptures of Coimbra comprises the works produced by the friar for the Church of the Order of S. Bento in the city. The documentation gathered by the historian made it clear that the Pietà fits perfectly within the trajectory of this, now identified, master-sculptor. Recent research, (Le Gac, A. and Alcoforado, A., 2003), which approaches the sculpture with regard to its composite materials, enabled the definition of specific aspects of the creative process which provided the exact data necessary to confirm or verify its authenticity and origin. Frei Cipriano left his inimitable mark in the shaving and carving of the wood, more especially in the characteristic way that he left the marks made by his tools without troubling to remove them. The study of the cavities in the rear of the sculpture was crucial. In these cavities – openings in the trunk at the rear of the images to relieve stresses that could cause warping– the marks of the adze are visible; the periphery areas and the edges of these cavities show gouge marks and chisel marks are apparent on the surface. These marks are generally deep and appear with precision in all of Frei Cipriano’s work, revealing his confidence and determination.

Analysis of the growth rings of the wood examined in the rear cavity showed it to be almost eighty years
 old.

Pic.1 

This sculptural group presents structural characteristics in common with the rest of this artist’s production. A brief look at the body of his work shows exclusively life-size figures which, revealing the monumentality of the Portuguese Baroque, yield themselves to the vast scale of the altars which accommodate them and are intimately connected to the structure of the building. The choice of oak for the execution of his large scale works in wood is justified by its size, width and strength. Trunks of approximately one hundred years old were used; in the case of the Pietà, analysis of the growth rings of the wood examined in the rear cavity showed it to be almost eighty years old. (pic.1) The volume of this work required the sculptor to opt for a solution that required the assemblage of elements to the main trunk. The legs of the figure of Christ and part of the shroud were realized by resorting to two complimentary blocks fixed to the figure of the Virgin by this method. (pic.2). The heads of the figures, carved from one huge block, are components that fit together. This is a basic element of the composition given that it commands all the proportions in accordance with the canons of the time (the head being one-seventh of the total figure, after the theory developed by A. Dürer, 1471-1528).

Several unmistakable formal elements are just as obvious - systematized in the above-mentioned study (2003) and are equally identifiable as being keys to the reading of the work of Cipriano da Cruz. In this piece it is the quality of the overall solidity of the highly geometrized composition along with the slightly rudimentary proportions and sculptural treatment of the anatomy.

The legs of the figure of Christ and part of the shroud were realized by resorting to two complimentary blocks fixed to the figure of the Virgin 
by this method.

Pic.2

Strong characteristics of the author are the coarse treatment of the hands with well-defined squared-off fingernails (pic.3) and visages emphasized, in the case of Christ, by the thick, wavy hair and beard with a double-S snake-like effect (pic.4) and, in the case of the Virgin, by the resigned look accentuated by the swollen red eyelids.

Strong characteristics of the author are the coarse treatment of the hands with well-defined squared-off fingernails.

Pic.3

Visages emphasized, in the case of Christ, by the thick, wavy hair and beard with a double-S 
snake-like effect.

Pic.4

The high symmetric eyebrows, the elongated triangular- shaped nose (as defined by the tip and the nostrils) and the small lips with well-defined contours and commissures (pic.5) are all identifying elements of the work of Cipriano da Cruz.

The elongated triangular- shaped nose (as defined by the tip and the nostrils) and the small lips with well-defined contours and
 commissures.

Pic.5

The seated Virgin holds the lifeless body of her son supporting his head with her right hand and holding his arm with the left. She is clothed in ample padded garments in tones of red, blue and gold displaying an applied decoration of plant motifs. She wears a large tunic with a white coif cover by a cloak that envelops the entire composition. Her face, with its by large red and swollen eyes, looks heavenward in a dramatic attitude of resignation.

The figure of Christ is stretched obliquely across his mother’s lap, his moribund feet resting on the ground. The depiction of the dead Christ lying in this position transpires after His descent from the cross. This is the reason why this composition is never represented alone, always being inserted in the context of the Crucifixion from which it cannot be separated.

We can turn to archival sources to trace the context in which this sculptural group belongs. The positioning of the figures in the Church is reported in the Notícia do Collegio de São Bto de Coimbra by Padre Luís Cardoso in 1758. It can therefore be concluded that the Pietà occupied the final chapel of the nave on the side the Gospels. On the other hand, the contract for the gilding and painting of this chapel defines it as being the largest in the church, obliging it to be gilded in its entirety, and that the background should depict the traditional elements of the Descent from the Cross as well as buildings allusive to a city (Jerusalem). By the dimensions of this work we can easily deduce that the cross would have had grandiose proportions and that the whole group, when viewed in its entirety, would undoubtedly have an enormous scenic effect.


The contract referred to above, dated 1692, was agreed between Frei Cipriano da Cruz and the painter and gilder Pascoal de Sousa. It also includes the painting of the five images belonging to the other chapels of this nave, however there is no reference to the painting of Nossa Senhora da Piedade, an image destined for that chapel. Such an omission could be intentional, possibly justifiable by the polychrome work already having been executed by another painter before the intervention on the altarpiece. The documentation, however, does not mention the identity of the painter responsible for this work.

In the cloak of this figure of the Virgin our attention is drawn to the application of the artichoke motif imitating the
 three-bordered brocade of Italian or Spanish origin, placed strategically on the 
knee.

Pic.6

This sculptural group presents partial repainting that hides relevant aspects of the original polychrome work. For example, the shroud and the loincloth of Christ, which now are white, were originally gilded in their entirety. It also reveals deep lacunas in the flesh of Christ that equally affect the support, altering the perception of the colour palette and, from an iconographic point of view, its symbology.

The interest of this work, from the perspective of the pictorial treatment, resides in the fact that the painter was inspired by, or scrupulously copied textile motifs. The types of worked fabrics reproduced are generally rich, brocades or oriental silks, generically called ‘stuff’, in known contracts. These contracts not only stipulate the attributes but also the colours of the images’ garments and the  embroidery that must be represented with references to the various techniques to be used by the painter. In the cloak of this figure of the Virgin our attention is drawn to the application of the artichoke motif imitating the three-bordered brocade of Italian or Spanish origin, placed strategically on the knee and on the upper part of the garment, areas of greater visual impact. The application of pre-worked embroidery (in wax-resin) was done after the completion of the polychrome work on the surface of the cloak with two shades of blue executed by the sgraffito point technique. The same process was used in the execution of the embroidery on the cloak’s border (pic.7).

The application of pre-worked ‘embroidery’ (in wax-resin) was done after the completion of the polychrome work on the 
surface of the cloak with two shades of blue executed by the sgraffito point technique. The same process was used in the execution 
of the embroidery on the cloak’s border

Pic.7

Taking into consideration the techno-stylistic character of ’applied embroideries’ and their similarities with the applied decorations on the figures of the high-altar of the Sé Velha of Coimbra, A. Le Gac, in the research for her doctoral thesis (in preparation), attributes the polychrome work of the Pietà to that of the painter responsible for this commission in the Cathedral – Manuel da Costa Pereira.