References in the Walker Art Gallery collection

Painting showing Virgin Mary with the body of Jesus Christ

'Pietã' - Ercole de Roberti

The Walker Art Gallery's Medieval and Renaissance art collection is both wide-ranging and exceptional. It offers a relevant historical context for 'Observance'.

Amongst the jewels of the Walker Art Gallery, part of William Roscoe's collection transferred to the gallery in 1893, is Ercole de' Roberti's Pietã of c. 1495. Symbolic of pity, it uses unidealised figures to project grief and suffering. The subject of the Virgin holding the body of her Son is included in Jacopo da Voragine’s ‘Sermo de Passione’, and represents a solitary act of sacrifice on the part of the Virgin, who offers her son for the redemption of mankind. In the Virgin's pose, head dropped in grief, face fraught with sorrow, the Pietã typifies the type of devotional work that has inspired Viola here. Even the bare, rocky landscape is used to further stress the tragic and emotionally loaded theme, whilst the robe worn by the Virgin is coloured black rather than traditional blue.

The best of Roscoe's Northern European pictures is 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ' by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines. The procession across the panel of the figures in this composition is eerily redolent of the imagery in 'Observance'.

Painting showing the dead body of Jesus Christ with various figures in mourning

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines - 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ'

Here, Christ’s friends have taken his body down from the cross and brought it to his mother. She sinks to her knees, singular in her grief although supported by St. John and accompanied by two holy women. The scene is one of horror and desolation, expressed through such details as the pale, skull-like faces and the barren landscape.

With its dramatic Caraveggesque lighting, Paulus Bor’s 17th century 'Mary Magdalen' shows the repentant sinner, eyes red with weeping, holding the flask of ointment with which she 'anointed Christ’s feet. The same subject is re-worked in the 19th century in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection by George Frederick Watts.

Also in the 19th century, Benjamin West and Daniel Maclise offer a contrasting perspective on the nature of shared public grief and loss. Their two versions of 'The Death of Nelson', from the early and later 19th century respectively, reflect both the contemporary surge of commemorative works and the continuing need to mourn and celebrate the great national hero. West’s version of the scene is more ‘staged’, with all eyes locked on the subject and his heroic death for his country. Maclise’s version shows a multitude of other characters each locked in their own personal dramas, the monumentality of what is happening still to hit them.

In Louis Fournier’s 'The Funeral of Shelley', 1889, the poet’s closest friends, including Byron, grieve the tangible loss of a person embodying their collective Romantic spirit, the brooding sense of sorrow and desolation emphasised by the grey, cold weather. The Pre-Raphaelites were also keen to evoke the internal passions of loss, especially in relation to lost love: 'Dante's Dream' by Rossetti is perhaps the Walker Art Gallery's pinnacle of achievement in this respect. Every inch of its symbolism, gestures, and its rich, gothic colours seize the overwhelming upsurge of Dante's emotions as he dreams of Beatrice's death. Meanwhile, the work of Albert Moore and his contemporaries represents the notion of 'Art for Art's Sake' to which Viola’s exploration of the potential function of art is in true counterpoint.

Removed from their original context, framed and hung on walls, most of these works of art are far removed from their created purpose. Viola's return to the literal use of a work of art to reach out to the emotional state of the viewer brings a fascinating, contemporary perspective to these historic holdings. It demonstrates the timelessness and universality of such expressions of emotion, whatever their medium might be, and point towards the original raison d’etre of these devotional objects.