Pietà wood sculpture, c. 1420, St Kunibert, Cologne © Manfred Wegener

This son has become so light, wasted away literally to skin and bones, his legs thin as sticks, so light that his mother can hold up his torso effortlessly on the flat of her hand. Her fingers unnaturally long, she could embrace his hips with her two hands. But is she his mother? If my eyes do not deceive me, the Catholics almost always imagine Mary younger than a woman could be whose son died at the age of thirty-four or thirty-eight, a mature man, allowing for the life expectancy of the time, but the Mary in St Kunibert looks even younger than usual, almost like a girl, not only because of her red cheeks; her unblemished skin is light, almost white, rarely touched by the sun, inexperienced, so to speak; in her eyes is not just grief but complete helplessness, which has something childlike about it, the helplessness of one who has no one left on earth; this impression reinforced by the other hand, the raised hand, which looks so pitiful because all the rest of the body, the facial expression too, is as if paralysed; there is a plainness in her face, something so absolutely anti-intellectual, something so immediately receptive, not filtering the pain, not understanding the world, that it seems absurd to think she could take comfort in a God in Heaven. Faith may be a consolation to adults, even to mothers who have practiced piety long enough, but how could one explain God to a child, a girl, holding her slain father in her arms?

What am I saying, where are my thoughts taking me? This is Mary; she is the mother and the slain man is her son, although he looks like – no, not her father, but like a very much older brother or an uncle, or – perhaps her father after all, allowing for the marrying age of the time? The proportions are thoroughly confusing: if I imagine the two bodies standing up side by side, they would seem to be the same height; but the way the corpse is lying on her lap, its feet suspended in the air, so that it almost forms the arms of a cross, it looks shrivelled, tiny, and it has something senile about it. All the odder, since Jesus’ torso and his legs are not in the right – or, rather, not in realistic – proportion to each other – the torso too big, the legs too short.

Only the closed eyes appear soothed; as if released, the eyelids rest on one another… Yes, released; this Jesus is no Saviour but looks saved himself from torture, from scorn, from the betrayal of his fellows.”

There is nothing in the art travel guide about this pietà, placed like a surplus ornament upon the altar of the south middle pier, and even in the thirty-page brochure that is offered for sale on the stand beside the entrance, between postcards and the parish newsletter, there is no more to be learned about it for the price of three euros except that the sculpture dates from the early fifteenth century, not even what kind of wood it is carved from, although every portrait of every past canon of St Kunibert merits a full description. And in fact it was not for the pietà that I cycled the few hundred yards from my office to St Kunibert, but because I wanted to look at a crucifix that is related to, and possibly made in the same studio as, a crucifix which had gripped and shocked me when I saw it in an exhibition because it shows the physical torment of the Redeemer with absolutely unsettling force, his mouth wide open in agony, his brow contorted with pain. Only the crucifix I found in St Kunibert had been whitewashed in the eighteenth century, and even before that it had not been extraordinarily forceful, Jesus’ face serene as if he were dreaming sweet dreams.

But the Jesus lying unnoticed across Mary’s lap is no more than a skeleton, the skin stretched over it so tightly that the spaces between the ribs become deep furrows, his lips still pressed together as in the convulsions of death, the wound in his chest open a finger’s breadth, the brown blood mixed with dirt spattered over his whole body, his forehead in death still furrowed with the extreme pain, the folds so long in the already elongated face that a scream seems to be forming.

Only the closed eyes appear soothed; as if released, the eyelids rest on one another. Yes, released, I can’t help thinking when I look at him, released; this Jesus is no Saviour but looks saved himself from torture, from scorn, from the betrayal of his fellows, which raises the question in my mind whether he wanted to be resurrected at all; whether, if he had to decide, he wouldn’t prefer nothingness to life, to a life which will in future be eternally blessed, but which holds such torment first. It is not only his torment, or, rather, his torment is only the extreme of the torments of all people, whether sons or fathers, whether mothers or daughters – and sometimes not just the extreme.

On the telephone, my Catholic friend, to whom I mailed a flash photo, downplays my discovery. While my pietà, standing unnoticed by art history a few hundred yards from my office, certainly seems to be valuable, it is not extraordinary. No, not even the proportions, my friend replies to my next question, pointing to the Marian mysticism of the late Middle Ages, whose central experience is empathy more with the Mother of God than with her Son; at funerals, my friend adds, we sympathize more with the bereaved than with the deceased, whose situation is beyond our imagining. Because a pietà has the purpose of evoking or renewing the believers’ pity, Mary grew steadily larger in the piet.s of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries while Jesus diminished. I’m not sure I find that convincing, I mutter, pointing to the fact that, when you really look, Jesus is not particularly small, only terribly thin, like an emaciated old man. My friend says he can’t judge of that; the proportions are not clearly discernible in the photo. I spare myself the question why the Mary of my pietà is so young, the Jesus so old, to preserve my amazement. Before ringing off, my Catholic friend says he’ll be happy to look at it the next time he’s in Cologne. I don’t know whether I should take him along to my pietà. Perhaps he won’t have the same experience I did, but, during the hour I sat more or less alone in St Kunibert on the pew diagonally in front of the south middle pier, the idea gradually came to me that piety, which is the literal sense of pietà, ought rather to shake our confidence in God than to strengthen it. Jesus crucified raises questions enough but doesn’t invite us to identify with him, not in the sense that we would imagine dying on the cross ourselves. Of course we pity him. But do we suffer, does even a faithful Christian actually suffer with him? Is that exactly what the viewer feels, or is it not rather horror at what many are doing to one? And are not we, whether faithful or not, to be counted rather among the many? Even a mother weeping for her son, as chilling as the very thought must be to anyone watching their own children growing up, even the bereaved mother does not correspond to regular human experience; for most, fortunately, it is the ultimate nightmare. On the other hand, most of us, whether believing or not, have by now held, or will one day hold, their dead father, their dead mother in their arms. If anything is a rule of human experience, then this: that the parents go away and we are left behind on earth; they diminish, we grow larger.

From Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity translated by Tony Crawford (Polity Press, £20)


Navid Kermani 2014Navid Kermani is a writer and scholar who lives in Cologne, Germany. He has received numerous accolades for his literary and academic work, including the 2015 Peace Prize of the German Publishers’ Association, Germany’s most prestigious cultural award. His recent books include Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities and Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe. Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity is out now from Polity Press in hardback and eBook.
Read more

Author portrait © Peter-Andreas Hassiepen


Tony Crawford is a freelance American translator and editor based in Berlin, specilalising in art history, architecture and aesthetics.