The Petrified Scream: Exploring the Compianto of Santa Maria della Vita

Compianto Santa Maria Vita Bologna - San Giovanni

Il Compianto del Cristo Morto ("The lamentation over dead Christ”) is a sculptural group of 7 terracotta figures by Niccolò dell’Arca, housed in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna.

Such an intense representation with a long story to tell.

The author: Niccolò dell’Arca

The gentle hands that shaped the Compianto belong to Niccolò Dell'Arca, born in 1435 probably in Bari (Puglia).

Dell'Arca isn't its real name: it was inspired by the magnificent marble sarcophagus (arca) inside San Domenico Basilica.
This gem also hosts 3 statues by a certain Michelangelo Buonarroti, ever heard about him?

In 1461 he worked at the huge windows of San Petronio Basilica to create the statues of Santa Caterina da Siena, San Domenico, a Sibyl and 2 prophets.

You can also look at his terracotta sculptured Virgin Mary in Piazza Maggiore.
Just next to the most famous Neptune Fountain, on the facade of Palazzo D'Accursio.

A plaque in Via D'Azeglio, on the side of the Celestini church where he rests, celebrates him with these words:

"He who gave life to the stones and formed living statues with the chisel, what pain! Is buried here. Now Praxiteles, Phidias, Polykleitos venerate and admire your works, Nicola".

Compianto Santa Maria Vita Bologna

The impenetrable expression of Joseph of Arimathea

The story of the Compianto

The story of the Compianto is mysterious and controversial.


At first, its date is unsure, between 1463 to 1490, and for whom it was created.

Several restorations changed the sculptures, their color is gone and we don't know their original position.
The current arrangement set in the right-wing of Santa Maria della Vita is a reconstruction by Alfonso Rubbiani in 1922.

Initially, the work was not appreciated: terracotta was considered a less noble material than the solemn marble.

The expressions of the characters also appeared too dramatic and different from the classical canons of the time.

This shocking representation of pain caused a stir in the hearts of the 17th century. The Hospital of Life, connected to the Sanctuary, in fear of frightening the sick, hid it for a time.

Despite the growing popularity of the opera, now considered one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, in Bologna the Virgins of the Compianto are still a symbol of ugliness and lack of grace.

Compianto Santa Maria Vita Bologna - Maria Maddalena

The petrified scream of Mary Magdalene

A scream of stone

The Compianto consists of 7 life-size terracotta figures representing:

- Joseph of Arimathea

- Mary Salome

- The Madonna

- Jesus Christ

- St. John the Apostle

- Mary of Cleophas

- Mary Magdalene

The depiction of pain looks completely different between the men and the women.

The men seem paralyzed, almost dazed; the women appear endlessly weeping and abandoned to desperation that transfigures their faces.

Joseph of Arimathea is a stunned, impenetrable block.
St. John the Evangelist appears drained by an interior cry so absolute that it has no outlet.

The Madonna curls up on herself as if broken.
Maria di Salome looks tortured, with her nails stuck in her thighs.
Maria of Cleophas keeps her hands in front of her in a motion of horror, to remove that death from view.
Mary Magdalene is a fury, with her mouth wide open in a petrified scream, amplified by the masterful drapery.

Compianto Santa Maria Vita Bologna - Niccolò Dell'Arca

The full scene of Niccolò Dell'Arca's Compianto at Santa Maria della Vita

More on the first floor

Still not enough astonishment?

Go upstairs to visit the Oratory of Santa Maria della Vita which houses another amazing work: the Transit of the Virgin by Alfonso Lombardi.

15 terracotta statues arranged to depict a subject little frequented by Western art: the Apostles huddled around the coffin of the Madonna, which an unbeliever tries to overturn while being deposed by an angel.

The various figures are an anthology of emotions.

From terrified amazement to concentration, to the indignation of those who lift a book to hurl it against the profane.

Alfonso Lombardi is the author of another Compianto, kept inside San Pietro Cathedral in Via Indipendenza.

Compianto San Pietro Bologna

The Compianto by Alfonso Lombardi at San Pietro Cathedral


Santa Maria della Vita
Via Clavature 8-10, Bologna
Open from Tuesday to Sunday 10 am - 6:30 pm
Entry ticket: 5€

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