A life size Pietà, originally created in 1904 by Balthasar Schmitt and made in the early Renaissance style for St Paul’s Church in Munich, is on display in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral until the 27th August 2013. This is the first time this Pietà has been shown in England.
In 1986 the Pietà was badly damaged by fire and was ignored for some years. In 2009, it was ‘discovered’ by Stefan Knor, a lighting artist. Inspired by the powerful charisma of this seriously damaged piece of art, Stefan did not try to restore the sculpture.
First he wanted to free it from all previous alterations; the original had been subjected to the application of modelling material to replace some of the original contours and the insertion of about 300 drawing-pins to create marker points in order to create the modern copy. Stefan scraped off the modelling material, removed the pins, and the charred surface stabilized. He also gave the sculpture some artistic treatment by the partial application of 24 carat gold leaf, turning it into a new contemporary piece of art. The gold is now visible alongside the black charred wood and the grey ash. It is on display with orange lighting, an essential part of this installation, which accentuates the contrast between what is charred and what is gilded. The sculpture is accompanied by an old wooden box into which visitors place their written prayers.
The Pietà has had its own death and recreation. The whole surface suffered burns and was so charred that it was replaced by a copy. Yet, since the moment that the Pietà was placed in the Cathedral on 4th April, there has been excitement and delight from those who work and volunteer here, as well as from our many visitors. It speaks of hope and light in the darkness for those who are suffering or in pain.
The Revd Canon Clare Edwards, Vice Dean of Canterbury
In the Cathedral, the Pietà has been placed in the ambulatory behind the Chapel of our Lady Undercroft, the Virgin Mary’s head caressed by the Romanesque arch. The back of Mother Concordia’s ‘Mary and Child’ can be seen just above the Pietà, giving another point of contrast. In the ‘Something Understood’ broadcast on Radio 4 on the 7th April, Antony Gormley (whose sculpture ‘Transport’ is just feet away in the Cathedral’s Eastern Crypt), talked with John McCarthy about the importance of Pietàs on his own work, particularly Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà and the significance of being held in times of adversity.
When not on loan, the Pietà is kept at a retreat centre in St Thomas, Germany. This small village north of Trier was the site of a pilgrim hospice and chapel for those on their way to Trier and Santiago de Compostella. Relics of St Thomas Becket were fetched from Canterbury in 1173, just three years after his death.
The link between the communities at Canterbury Cathedral and St Thomas was renewed in 2011 when a group led by Fr Ralph visited Canterbury. A return visit to St Thomas was made in 2012.