Swoon of the Virgin

The Swoon of the Virgin, in Italian Lo Spasimo della Vergine, or Fainting Virgin Mary was an idea developed in the late Middle Ages, that the Virgin Mary had fainted during the Passion of Christ, most often placed while she watched the Crucifixion of Jesus. It was based on mentions in later texts of the apocryphal gospel the Acta Pilati, which describe Mary swooning. It was popular in later medieval art and theological literature, but as it was not mentioned in the Canonical Gospels, it became controversial, and from the 16th century was discouraged by many senior churchmen.

The swoon might be placed during the episode of Christ Carrying the Cross, as on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, but very commonly also during the Crucifixion of Jesus; Nicholas Penny estimates that "about half of the surviving paintings of the Crucifixion made between 1300 and 1500 will be found to include the Virgin fainting".[2] It also appeared in works showing the Deposition from the Cross and Entombment of Christ,[3] as well as the 15th-century novelty of Christ taking leave of his Mother.

Artgate Fondazione Cariplo - (Scuola ferrarese, copia da Taddeo Zuccari - XVI), Crocifissione
The Virgin fainting at the Crucifixion, copy of Taddeo Zuccari[1]


A fainting Mary is sometimes shown in art as early as the 12th century, and becomes common by the middle of the 13th century. By 1308 the pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem included a church formally dedicated to St John the Baptist but known as the site of the Virgin's swoon; by 1350 guidebooks mention a church of Santa Maria de Spasimo, which was later replaced by housing. The very popular book Meditations on the Life of Christ, of about 1300, mentions three points in the Passion where Mary faints or collapses.[4] By the 15th century Italian sacri monti included shrines commemorating the spasimo in their routes, and an unofficial feast-day was being celebrated by many, especially the Franciscans, and the Vatican was being asked to make it official.[5]

However no such incident was mentioned in the Four Gospels, and it was disapproved of by many theologians. The backlash produced a work of 1506 by the Dominican Thomas Cajetan, then a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome and later to be head of his order and, as a Cardinal, Martin Luther's opponent in dialogue. Cajetan pointed out the lack of biblical authority and, as described by Nicholas Penny, that "the severe physical weakness following a 'spasimo' as defined by Avicenna would be incompatible with the explicit statement in the Gospel of Saint John that the Virgin stood beside the cross, an act of endurance that would have required exceptional strength. Furthermore, even a less serious faint or 'spasimo' would have been incompatible with the Grace that enabled the Virgin to suffer with her full mind".[6] The swoon was probably associated in some cases with the campaign for acceptance of the doctrine of Mary as Co-Redemptrix, which gradually subsided after the Council of Trent.

Official disapproval of the swoon gained ground in the Counter-Reformation and was followed by the authors of guides for the clergy on the interpretation of the short and inexplicit decrees of the Council of Trent in 1563 on sacred images, with minutely detailed instructions for artists and commissioners of works. The guides of Molanus (1570), Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1582) and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo objected to the depiction, and it was criticised by authors of theological works on the Virgin such as Peter Canisius (1577). At least in Rome there appears to have been actual censorship, with paintings removed from public view and permission refused for the publication of an engraving by Cornelius Bloemaert of a Crucifixion by Annibale Carraci, which had to be published in Paris instead.[7] However no more official condemnation of the belief in the incident came, and although new depictions were fewer, existing ones remained in place, including many in Dominican churches. Indeed, where the swooning Virgin was depicted, she was often even more prominent. Depictions placed other than at the Crucifixion itself avoided many of the theological objections.[8]

The examples illustrated show more complete fainting, but in many images the Virgin remains standing, supported by St John, the Three Marys, or other disciples. Many images are ambiguous, presumably deliberately, and can be read as the Virgin either feeling faint, or simply stricken with grief. One major work to depict the Swoon is The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden (Prado, c. 1435), in which the body of the Virgin, with eyes closed, is parallel to that of her son just above.[9]


A number of churches take the name of the Swoon, including:


The-Cucifixion-157 Мастер Читта ди Кастелло. Манчестер.

Italian, c. 1320


Marienkirche, detail from the Berswordt-Altar

Boccaccio Boccaccino - Christ carrying the Cross (National Gallery, London)

Boccaccio Boccaccino, Christ Carrying the Cross (National Gallery, London)

LE BRUN Charles The Descent from the Cross

Charles Le Brun, Descent from the Cross

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 071

Rembrandt, Descent from the Cross, 1632-33 with a literally down to earth depiction (bottom left)

Berg bei RV Pfarrkirche Kreuztragung

In a Christ Carrying the Cross, from a South German church

See also


  1. ^ A copy in oils of this fresco of 1556
  2. ^ Penny, 26
  3. ^ Penny, 28
  4. ^ Penny, 26; Schiller, II, 152-153
  5. ^ Penny, 26
  6. ^ Penny, 26
  7. ^ Penny, 28
  8. ^ Penny, 26-28
  9. ^ Schiller, II, 168


  • Penny, Nicholas, National Gallery Catalogues (new series): The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Volume I, 2004, National Gallery Publications Ltd, ISBN 1-85709-908-7
  • Schiller, Gertrud, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. II, 1972 (English trans from German), Lund Humphries, London, ISBN 0-85331-324-5

Further reading

  • Neff, Amy, "The Pain of Compassio : Mary's Labor at the Foot of the Cross", 1998, The Art Bulletin, vol. 80, no. 2, pp. 255–273
  • von Simson, Otto G., " Compassio and Co-redemption in Roger van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross", 1953, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 35, No. 1, March, 1953, pp. 9–16.
  • Rubin, Miri. Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, Allen Lane, 2009, ISBN 0-7139-9818-0
Annunziata Polyptych

The Annunziata Polyptych is a painting cycle started by Filippino Lippi and finished by Pietro Perugino, whose central panel is now divided between the Galleria dell'Accademia (Deposition from the Cross) and the Basilica dell'Annunziata, both in Florence, Italy. The polyptych had other six panels, which are housed in the Lindenau-Museum of Altenburg, the Metropolitan Museum of New York City, the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome and in a private collection in South Africa.


Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author's imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power. In their most general form these activities include the production of works of art, the criticism of art, the study of the history of art, and the aesthetic dissemination of art.

The three classical branches of art are painting, sculpture and architecture. Music, theatre, film, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature and other media such as interactive media, are included in a broader definition of the arts. Until the 17th century, art referred to any skill or mastery and was not differentiated from crafts or sciences. In modern usage after the 17th century, where aesthetic considerations are paramount, the fine arts are separated and distinguished from acquired skills in general, such as the decorative or applied arts.

Though the definition of what constitutes art is disputed and has changed over time, general descriptions mention an idea of imaginative or technical skill stemming from human agency and creation. The nature of art and related concepts, such as creativity and interpretation, are explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics.

Catholic art

Catholic art is art related to the Catholic Church. This includes visual art (iconography), sculpture, decorative arts, applied arts, and architecture. In a broader sense, also Catholic music may be included. Expressions of art may or may not attempt to illustrate, supplement and portray in tangible form Catholic teaching. Catholic art has played a leading role in the history and development of Western art since at least the 4th century. The principal subject matter of Catholic art has been the life and times of Jesus Christ, along with people associated with him, including his disciples, the saints, and motives from the Catholic Bible.

The earliest surviving artworks are the painted frescoes on the walls of the catacombs and meeting houses of the persecuted Christians of the Roman Empire. The Church in Rome was influenced by the Roman art and the religious artists of the time. The stone sarcophagi of Roman Christians exhibit the earliest surviving carved statuary of Jesus, Mary and other biblical figures. The legalisation of Christianity with the Edict of Milan (313) transformed Catholic art, which adopted richer forms such as mosaics and illuminated manuscripts. The iconoclasm controversy briefly divided the Western Church and the Eastern Church, after which artistic development progressed in separate directions. Romanesque and Gothic art flowered in the Western Church as the style of painting and statuary moved in an increasingly naturalistic direction.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century produced new waves of image-destruction, to which the Catholic Church responded with the dramatic, elaborate emotive Baroque and Rococo styles to emphasise beauty as a transcendental. In the 19th century the leadership in Western art moved away from the Catholic Church which, after embracing historical revivalism was increasingly affected by the modernist movement, a movement that in its "rebellion" against nature, counters the church's emphasis on nature as a good creation of God.

Christ Carrying the Cross

Christ Carrying the Cross on his way to his crucifixion is an episode included in all four Gospels, and a very common subject in art, especially in the fourteen Stations of the Cross, sets of which are now found in almost all Catholic churches. However, the subject occurs in many other contexts, including single works and cycles of the Life of Christ or the Passion of Christ. Alternative names include the Procession to Calvary, Road to Calvary and Way to Calvary, Calvary or Golgotha being the site of the crucifixion outside Jerusalem. The actual route taken is defined by tradition as the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, although the specific path of this route has varied over the centuries and continues to be the subject of debate.

Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary

Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, also known as Lo Spasimo or Il Spasimo di Sicilia, is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael, of c. 1514–16, now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. It is an important work for the development of his style.

Crucifixion in the arts

Crucifixions and crucifixes have appeared in the arts and popular culture from before the era of the pagan Roman Empire. The crucifixion of Jesus has been depicted in religious art since the 4th century CE. In more modern times, crucifixion has appeared in film and television as well as in fine art, and depictions of other historical crucifixions have appeared as well as the crucifixion of Christ. Modern art and culture have also seen the rise of images of crucifixion being used to make statements unconnected with Christian iconography, or even just used for shock value.

Esther before Ahasuerus

Esther before Ahasuerus is a large painting of 1546–47 by the Venetian painter Tintoretto showing a scene from the Greek addition to the Book of Esther, where Queen Esther faints during a bold intervention with her husband King Ahasuerus of Persia. In oil on canvas, it measures 207.7 by 275.5 centimetres (81.8 in × 108.5 in). Since the 1620s it has been in the Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, and in 2019 it hung in the King's Gallery in Kensington Palace, London.The degree of finish varies considerably between different parts of the painting, which with the intense colours and dramatic contrasts in lighting, is characteristic of Venetian painting. The orange-yellow pigment orpiment in the robe of the king has altered; it would originally have matched the biblical description of his splendid gold robe.The painting is dated, largely on stylistic grounds, to about 1546–47, relatively early in Tintoretto's career, when he was still in his late twenties. It comes shortly before his first major commission, Saint Mark Rescuing the Slave, now in the Accademia, Venice.

Life of the Virgin

The Life of the Virgin, showing narrative scenes from the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a common subject for pictorial cycles in Christian art, often complementing, or forming part of, a cycle on the Life of Christ. In both cases the number of scenes shown varies greatly with the space available. Works may be in any medium: frescoed church walls and series of old master prints have many of the fullest cycles, but panel painting, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stone sculptures and ivory carvings have many examples.

Ligier Richier

Ligier Richier (c. 1500–1567) was a French sculptor active in Saint-Mihiel in north-eastern France.

Richier primarily worked in the churches of his native Saint-Mihiel and from 1530 he enjoyed the protection of Duke Antoine of Lorraine, for whom he did important work. Whilst Richier did sometimes work in wood, he preferred the pale, soft limestone with its fine grain, and few veins, extracted at Saint Mihiel and Sorcy and when working in this medium he experimented with refined polishing techniques, with which he was able to give the stone a marble-like appearance. One of his finest works is the "Groupe de la Passion", consisting of 13 life-size figures made in the local stone of the Meuse region. It can be found in the Church of St. Étienne. It is also known as the "Pâmoison de la Vierge" (Swoon of the Virgin, the Virgin fainting, supported by St John). Other works attributed to him are in the Church of St. Pierre, Bar-le-Duc, and in the Louvre.

His work "Le Transi de René de Chalon" is in the church of Saint-Étienne i, Bar-le-Duc. Made in Sorcy stone and standing at 1m74cm, it depicts the corpse of Rene de Chalon, Prince of Orange (who died on the 15th of July 1544) in the form of a flayed corpse clutching its own heart.

Marienkirche, Dortmund

Marienkirche (St. Mary's Church) is a church in Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany, located in the inner city. Since the Reformation, it has been a Lutheran parish church of St. Marien. The church was destroyed in World War II, but rebuilt. It also serves as a concert venue for sacred music.

The church was built on the Hellweg, opposite of the Reinoldikirche, for the town's council and jurisdiction. It shows elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and houses notable Medieval art, such as the Marienaltar by Conrad von Soest and the Berswordtaltar.

Saint Mihiel Abbey

Saint Mihiel Abbey is an ancient Benedictine abbey situated in the town of Saint-Mihiel, near Verdun in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France.

The benedictine abbey was built in 708 or 709 by a Count Wulfoalde and his wife Adalsinde, probably to house the relics that Wulfoalde had brought back from Italy.

It was dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, a popular saint at the time, as can be testified by the establishment of the abbeys of Mont St Michel in Normandy and the Abbey of Honau in Alsace in the same period.

In 1734 the tombs of both Wulfoalde and Adalsinde were discovered in the abbey.

The abbey was placed under the authority of Fulrad of St Denis, chaplain to Charlemagne.

In 755 a mayor Wulfoald, probably a relative of the founder of the abbey, was accused of high treason and plotting against Pepin the Short, was condemned to death. When Fulrad intervened to save his life, Wulfoald expressed his gratitude by giving King Childéric II his possessions, including the Abbey.

The Abbey is best known for its abbot Smaragdus, who moved there around the year 814 with his monks from the monastery on Mt. Castellion.

Some time between 816 and 826 Smaragdus obtained royal protection for the abbey from Louis the Pious, ensuring that wagons, pack-horses and ships would be exempt from customs taxes on goods transported between the monastery and its lands.

Smaragdus achieved fame as a writer of homilies, and for his writings on the Rule of St Benedict.

Smaragdus, who died around 840, was succeeded as Abbott by Hadegaudus, who was probably elected by the monks themselves.

Abbots in the tenth century included Odon I, followed by Sarovard, followed by Odon II, who died in 995.

Over the years, the abbey proved very popular with royalty, emperors and kings and dukes. In the 11th century, for example, it came under the protection of Gérard, Duke of Lorraine.

During the Middle Ages, the Abbey was famous for its relics, not least of which concerned Saint Anatole, Bishop of Cahors, whose body was reputed to have been transferred to Mihiel in 779.

The Abbey was dissolved during the French revolution.

Santa Maria dello Spasimo

Santa Maria dello Spasimo, or Lo Spasimo, is an unfinished Catholic church in the Kalsa neighborhood in Palermo, Sicily, on Via dello Spasimo.

Construction of the church and accompanying monastery of the Olivetan Order began in 1509 with a papal bull from Julius II, on land bequeathed by Giacomo Basilicò, a lawyer and the widower of a rich noblewoman. The Spasimo or Swoon of the Virgin was a controversial idea in late medieval and Renaissance Catholic devotion. The church commissioned the painting by Raphael, Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, or Lo Spasimo di Sicilia, as it is also known. This was completed in Rome in about 1514-165, but in 1622 the Spanish Viceroy of Naples twisted arms and obtained its sale to Philip IV of Spain, and it is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

The church was never completed because of the rising Turkish threat in 1535, where resources meant for the church were diverted to fortifications of the city against any possible incursions. Even in its unfinished states, Lo Spasimo shows the late Gothic style architecture that permeated building practices in Palermo at the time as well as the Spanish influence in the city.The church now hosts open air musical, theatrical and cultural events because of its lack of a roof.

Stabat Mater (art)

For the Roman Catholic poetry sequence please see Stabat Mater.

Stabat Mater (Latin for "the mother was standing") is a feature in the Crucifixion of Jesus in art in which the Virgin Mary is depicted under the cross during the Crucifixion of Christ. In these depictions, the Virgin Mary is almost always standing to the right hand side of the body of her son Jesus on the Cross, with Saint John the Apostle standing to the left. It contrasts with the swoon of the Virgin, where she is seen fainting. This is only seen from the late medieval period onwards.

Stabat Mater is one of the three common artistic representations of a sorrowful Virgin Mary, the other two being Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows) and Pietà. In the Stabat Mater depictions the Virgin Mary is represented as an actor and spectator in the scene, a mystical emblem of faith in the Crucified Savior, an ideal figure at once the mother of Christ and the personified Church. The depictions generally reflect the first three lines of the Stabat Mater poem:

"At the Cross her station keeping,

stood the mournful Mother weeping,

close to Jesus to the last".The concept is also present in other designs, e.g. the Miraculous Medal and the more general Marian Cross. The Miraculous Medal, by Saint Catherine Labouré in the 19th century, includes a letter M, representing the Virgin Mary under the Cross.The Marian Cross is also used in the coat of arms of Pope John Paul II, about which the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, stated in 1978: "the large and majestic capital M recalls the presence of the Madonna under the Cross and Her exceptional participation in Redemption."

The Deposition (Raphael)

The Deposition, also known as the Pala Baglione, Borghese Entombment or The Entombment, is an oil painting by the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael. Signed and dated "Raphael. Urbinas. MDVII", the painting is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. It is the central panel of a larger altarpiece commissioned by Atalanta Baglioni of Perugia in honor of her slain son, Grifonetto Baglioni. Like many works, it shares elements of the common subjects of the Deposition of Christ, the Lamentation of Christ, and the Entombment of Christ. The painting is on wood panel and measures 184 x 176 cm.

The Deposition from the Cross (Pontormo)

The Deposition from the Cross is an altarpiece, completed in 1528, depicting the Deposition of Christ by the Italian Renaissance painter Jacopo Pontormo. It is broadly considered to be the artist's surviving masterpiece. Painted in oil on wood, the painting is located above the altar of the Capponi Chapel of the church of Santa Felicita in Florence.

The Descent from the Cross (van der Weyden)

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ, or Descent of Christ from the Cross) is a panel painting by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden created c. 1435, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. The crucified Christ is lowered from the cross, his lifeless body held by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

The c. 1435 date is estimated based on the work's style, and because the artist acquired wealth and renown around this time, most likely from the prestige this work allowed him. It was painted early in his career, shortly after he completed his apprenticeship with Robert Campin and shows the older painter's influence, most notable in the hard sculpted surfaces, realistic facial features and vivid primary colours, mostly reds, whites and blues. The work was a self-conscious attempt by van der Weyden to create a masterpiece that would establish an international reputation. Van der Weyden positioned Christ's body in the T-shape of a crossbow to reflect the commission from the Leuven guild of archers (Schutterij) for their chapel Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten (Notre-Dame-hors-les-Murs).

Art historians have commented that this work was arguably the most influential Netherlandish painting of Christ's crucifixion, and that it was copied and adapted on a large scale in the two centuries after its completion. The emotional impact of the weeping mourners grieving over Christ's body, and the subtle depiction of space in van der Weyden's work have generated extensive critical comments, one of the most famous being, that of Erwin Panofsky: "It may be said that the painted tear, a shining pearl born of the strongest emotion, epitomizes that which Italian most admired in Early Flemish painting: pictorial brilliance and sentiment".

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