Art can help us see the world as not opaque to God's presence but charged with it. David Taylor

Johan Maelwael: The Large Round Pietà

ArtWay Visual Meditation March 25, 2018

Johan Maelwael: The Large Round Pietà

Unrivalled Sorrow

by Thea Willemsen

What grief around the lifeless body of Christ – a body replete with bleeding wounds, only covered by a thin loincloth across which blood is trickling down. The mother clings to the arm of her son, as if she wants to comfort him but at the same moment realizes that this is not possible anymore. Her soft-pink hand on his ink-white arm emphasizes the difference between life and death. She has wrinkles in her forehead and dark eyes from which all color has retreated, her whole being filled with sorrow.

Someone behind her does not want to, cannot believe what has happened. He has raised his hand to ward off the raw reality, not yet ready to accept the unbelievable truth. The Father holds his Son, supporting his dead body and showing it to us: “Look, my beloved Son has died.” He does not look at us, his gaze is directed towards Jesus. Small angels have gathered around them. They also uphold Jesus’ body, wanting to do something, wanting to help. Other angels stand aghast – this cannot have happened.

Maelwael’s quality as a painter show up well in this so-called ‘tondo’ (round painting) – see for instance the special dedication to a lifelike anatomy and the subtle nuances of color. The tondo shows us sorrow in various guises and is very moving in its human quality. The title Pietà means compassion and refers to the theme in art in which a mourning Mary, alone or together with John the Evangelist, is portrayed with Christ’s body. A Pietà is intended to intensify devotion. It is the more devotional version of the Lamentation, the scene following the Deposition in which Christ’s body is surrounded by grieving followers.

This subject was often used for various forms of private devotion. It makes an appeal to the believer to ponder and sympathize with the suffering of Christ. This specific painting by Johan Maelwael (ca 1370-1415) is exceptional in that it also portrays God the Father, as a venerable old man with a long grey beard, together with a dove – the symbol of the Holy Spirit. In combination with the body of Christ the three figures form the Holy Trinity.

This rare combination can probably be explained by who commissioned the work, the Burgundian Duke Philip the Bold. At the end of the 14th century he started with a full-scale building program in Dijon to give form to his dynastic ambitions. Among other buildings he commissioned a church where his family members could be buried, which we still know by the name Chartreuse de Champmol. This church was dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

Maelwael was able to connect the themes his patron favored in a convincing manner. From 1397 onwards he served the duke. He was not only appointed as painter, but also as supervisor of the Chartreuse building program. He came from Nijmegen in the Netherlands. It was thanks to his valued work for the courts of the courts of Guelders (a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire) and France that he had obtained this important position in Dijon, where he was given so much influence that he could bring about that a number of his nephews from Nijmegen were also set to work in France. This were the brothers Paul, Johan and Herman of Limbourg. With their painted miniatures in famous manuscripts like the Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry they managed to surpass their uncle in fame.             

Today Maelwael is only known in art-historical circles. Even so he is considered one of the patriarchs of Netherlandish (and Dutch) painting. His ancestors were painters as well: his father Willem as well as his uncle Herman worked for the Duke of Guelders. The name ‘Maelwael’ comes from ‘wel malen’ or painting well. It was accorded him due to his talent. While Willem and Herman were mostly heraldic painters of banners and shields, Johan acquired fame abroad. He became so well-known there that he was considered a Frenchman, going by the name of Jean Malouel.


Johan Maelwael: The Large Round Pietà, c 1400, oil on panel, 64,5 x 64,5 cm, Louvre, Paris.

Johan Maelwael (also known as Jan or Jean Maluel or Malouel, Guelders ca 1370 – Dijon 1415) was an Early Netherlandish painter, who mainly worked in France. Around 1400 he worked as a heraldic painter at the court of Guelders. Then he became court painter for the French queen and confidant of the Dukes Philip the Bold and John the Fearless. He introduced his nephews, the three Limbourg Brothers, to the French and Burgundian courts and functioned as their advisor.

Thea Willemsen studied art history at the University of Amsterdam. She lectures at several open universities and art-historical institutes and organizes excursions. 



1. BOOK – Joan Taylor, What Did Jesus Look Like? Bloomsbury (T&T Clark), £16.19. Joan Taylor asks if the historical evidence justifies the prevalent image of Jesus in art and culture.  Filled with 70+ colour images from the V&A, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many more, the book concludes with a specially-commissioned painting by the artist Cathy Fisher ‘revealing’ what Jesus really looked like.

2. ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE – The Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion of Wesley Theological College in Washington D.C. welcomes everyone who is interested in the intersection of art and faith. We invite established and emerging artists to apply to our Artist-in-Residence program or make a proposal for a show in the Dadian Gallery. We also have opportunities for pastors or theologians who wish to stay with us for few weeks of sabbatical, reflecting on and engaging with the arts in conversation with our faculty and staff. Artist-in-Residence Program. We accepts applications from visual artists seeking to create within the community of Wesley Theological Seminary. Artists share space in a communal studio set in the seminary’s instructional building, working directly with students by leading practical art classes and community art projects. Teaching an Arts Practicum in the medium of the artist’s choosing is expected of all Artists-in-Residence. Opportunities for outreach to churches and the wider community are also available to resident artists. The annual application deadline is May 15.

3. ENGLAND – Association of Art Historians Conference - King's College London and the Courtauld Institute of Art 'Art and Religion' Conference Session, Friday 6 April 2018. Ben Quash and Ayla Lepine are convening a panel on Art and Religion and everyone is welcome to attend. Register for a ticket through the AAH conference website here: Topics include St Teresa of Avila, medieval rood screens, First Nations transformation masks, Jewish artists depicting Christ, and contemporary Christian art. Speakers include Spike Bucklow (Cambridge), Whitney Davis (UC Berkeley), Amitai Mendelsohn (Israel Museum, Jerusalem), and Hannah Williams (QMUL). 

4. SWEDEN - 25 April – 26 April, Kulturen, Tegnérsplatsen 6, Lund: Preserve, Use and Develop. The Diocese of Lund, Church of Sweden is looking forward to welcoming you at their international conference focused on use and development of church buildings and ecclesiastical heritage. The conference, entitled Preserve, Use and Develop – Ecclesiastical Heritage and its Future Challenges, will present projects and methods which aim at finding extended use for churches as sustainable resources for local communities and parishes. Several keynote speeches will give theological, societal and heritage perspective on church buildings and cultural history in a European context.

5. ARTWAY FRENCH SECTION – Pour lire Jerome Cottin: Comprendre l’art actuel, cliquez ici.

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

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