Fitzwilliam Museum bids to acquire weeping Virgin

A painted wood bust of the Mater Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) by Pedro de Mena has gone on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of an appeal to acquire it.

Mesmerisingly beautiful and just under life-size at 33.6cm tall, the Virgin of Sorrows’ gently furrowed brows, natural flesh tones, glass eyes and teardrops, and eyelashes made from human hair still elicit a powerful response 350 years after it was made. It was most likely created for the private chapel, study or bedchamber of a devout patron, and would almost certainly have been protected under a glass dome and originally paired with a bust of the Ecce Homo (Christ as the Man of Sorrows).

The Virgin of Sorrows is on show in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Spanish & Flemish Gallery, alongside other masterpieces by contemporary Baroque sculptors and painters. The museum has already raised a substantial amount towards the work (including £30,000 from the Art Fund and £10,000 from the Henry Moore Foundation) but needs to secure a further £85,000 by the end of September 2014 in order to acquire it.

The Spanish Golden Age (early 16th to late 17th century) was a period of incredible artistic and economic output for Spain. From the conquest of the New World, to the writing of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, this period changed the course of world politics and culture. The Fitzwilliam has a small collection of Spanish art, including two works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, but the more emotive Catholic works, exemplified by painted wood sculpture, are extremely rare in British collections. Taste and religion played their part in this: indeed, most of de Mena’s sculptures remain in the churches, monasteries and convents for which they were made.

Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) was taught the art of wood carving by his father, Alonso de Mena (1587-1646), a sculptor of traditional religious images in Granada. Following his father’s death, the 18-year-old Pedro took over the workshop and was joined by artist Alonso Cano (1601-1667), who taught him how to realistically paint sculpture. Cano also encouraged Mena to enhance the naturalism of his sculptures by including eyes and tears made from glass, and eyelashes from human hair. As such, Mena’s statues and busts have a remarkable lifelike quality. Mena left Granada in 1658 and spent the rest of his career in Málaga, becoming increasingly well-regarded by prestigious patrons from church and state. He was known for his intense faith and was elected by the Inquisition in both Granada and Málaga as a censor of images.

Tim Knox, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, said: 'The thing about this bust is that it is not one of those lugubrious virgins with rolling eyes that one associates with Spanish religious art. Here instead is a strikingly simple, and arrestingly intense, portrait of a beautiful young woman – an Andalusian peasant girl perhaps? – depicted in that moment of hopeless anguish for the humiliation and loss of her only Son. Pedro de Mena's Mater Dolorosa would be a wonderful addition to our collection.'

Donate to the campaign on the Fitzwilliam Museum website or contact Sue Rhodes, Development Officer at or 01223 332939.

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