In Rome's church of St. Peter, Michelangelo's Pieta can be found: a slight, seated woman across whose lap, lies a limp, fully-grown man. She can barely hold him; he is too heavy, too large - too dead. In art the Pieta was originally the Christian symbol for commiseration and compassion. It concerns us - the observer who feels pity for the one left behind, the one who lives on. The representation refers to the moment when Mary is left holding her dead son. He lies lifeless across the loins from which he was once born. The image is for all mothers, for all parents for whom the natural order of things has been upended; where the generation that should follow goes first. To me this image is deeply remarkable. Its significance extends far beyond mothers with children. It touches each of us who loves, for we know that every human being one day dies, including those we cherish. Against this love has no defense


Pietá, Michelangelo

The video Pieta by Erzsebet Baerveldt, who exhibited with me in the Municipal Museum of Modern Art in Schiedam,makes a particularly strong impression. In this 1992 Pieta a woman is attempting to stand a lying, life-sized human figure of clay back onto its feet, to awaken dead matter to life. The clay is un-fired and wet, the cumbersome body is, as a result, unmanageably heavy. The film shows a battle with gravity that the woman inevitably must lose.

For parents the idea that their child might die is unthinkable. A horror that nevertheless often haunts their thoughts, the overwhelming snare of loss. I myself have no children but if I attempt to imagine how their loss must feel the idea cuts away my breath. I cannot.Loss itself cannot be portrayed, it demands a context. Sorrow always translates into something or someone. How can sorrow be portrayed? By some thing that can literally not be borne, as Baerveldt shows us in her video. Is that why Michelangelo made the mother so young and fragile? Surely through this the son becomes correspondingly larger, heavier and therefore more dead. The heaviness of so dead a body can be immediately felt because the arms of the observer unconsciously reach out to help the mother bear her burden. The observer's own being experiences the bitter load of such a loss.

Stay! 2008, collage 80 x 65 cm

The Stabat Mater is an anonymous Italian 13th century lament that has been set to music by more than 400 composers. It is a text, originally written for personal meditation, that draws attention to Mary's sorrow. The text begins descriptively, but then turns the reader towards - and works on - his feeling for com-passio: 'feeling with', sympathy and pity. We, the mere reader, are elevated, we become witness and participant; we can no longer be indifferent. Why should anyone wish, yet again, to sink deeper into suffering, to experience loss? In order to live more intensely or to celebrate the fact that we have not been overcome? Or to be prepared for the end of our own or someone else's life?

Roy Asleep, 2008, collage

Stabat Maters can be found wherever people suffer and die. Every victim was once someone's son or daughter. With great numbers of dead, the individual himself - his humanity - is difficult to imagine, as with a catastrophe of nature, the impression is of something unavoidable against which opposition is hopeless. But by placing ourselves within the sorrow of a mother over the loss of her child the victims acquire worth and a personal face. Each dead person was once someone's child, was born and cared for, each was a child, deeply loved by someone.

What is essential in our lives - and often above our imaginative capacity -
can be made visible and recognizable through art. Through art the individual can be sensitized to the plight of to large numbers of human beings without the danger of dehumanization. Perhaps art itself came into existence in this way: we sketch a fertile woman because we want heirs; a bison because it then seems closer, easier to catch. We draw a dead person because we miss him. In this way, through a picture or sculpture, we give the dead a new 'body', we return him to a place in our life so that he will not be forgotten. The image makes it possible to mourn and to commemorate him.
All cultures and religions offer rituals for the significant moments of life; birth, parenthood, sickness and death. Archetypical images and creations are made that carry us to the following stage of life. But these rituals are increasingly mutating into folklore and are no longer broadly accepted in our culture. We have little patience with people who remind us of experiences we would like to forget. For this there are institutions like hospitals and houses for the dying. Professionals take over the conduct of death and mourning from the family and family tradition. Illness, death and grief are inevitably bound up with life, but, more and more, these are played out in the isolated ambience of the professional, often resulting in much loneliness.

Stabat Mater, Pieta: these are centuries-old images against the impersonal and the dehumanizing. For me their meaning and force are as strong as ever. They reach into our being and confront us with bulk and resilience. For these ancient images embody the first and the best of all themes: birth, life and death. They are a mental preparation for the trials and joys that will inevitably cross our paths.

It is important to find a form through art for the loss of a loved one because it gives us the understanding, even if only for a moment, of something we hope never to experience. It arouses our consciousness of the vulnerability of people we love, teaches us to participate in the experience of others and lessens our isolation. Does that make the suffering of others less painful? Probably not. But it bestows on the life of others additional worth.

Loss deserves its own bearable image.

Caren van Herwaarden, 2008

Translation:Lin Adams-Widmann