The Pieta traditionally depicts the Virgin Mary, who, in a gesture reminiscent of her younger self cradling her newborn son, cradles the adult, crucified Jesus across her lap. This image juxtaposes the unbearable pain of losing a child with the promise of eternal, other-worldly redemption purchased through the suffering of God the Son. 


In his take on the Pieta, now owned by the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, Chicago artist Tony Tasset re-imagines this traditional form in a way that surprises viewers into paying greater attention to the human dimension of the Holy Mother and of Christ. He “domesticates” this religious image, a process that sociologist of religion Susan Sered describes as personalizing “rituals, institutions, symbols and theology.”
Tasset’s Pieta, all-white and no taller than a table lamp, domesticates the transcendent by replacing the theotokos, or mother of God, with a father. There is nothing special about this man, dressed as he is in a polo shirt, slacks, and nondescript shoes. He struggles to prevent an unconscious or dead younger man from sliding to the ground. The younger man, whose head slumps sideways but bears no sign of torture or suffering, is similarly casually dressed.
A careful viewer might notice that the men resemble each other. Tasset modeled the older man on himself and the younger man on his (living, healthy) son. The title Tasset chose for his piece—“Pieta”—imbues the sculpture with religious and theological associations.
According to Sered, people domesticate religion out of a yearning for a more intimate connection with the divine than their “wider” religious system provides. When barriers, material or otherwise, hold back the faithful from an intimate encounter with the object of their devotion, these barriers are breached or “domesticated,” often in creative and surprising ways.
Tasset’s artistic paradigm is to present familiar images in unfamiliar ways to jolt viewers into seeing them anew. In 2010, he created a three-story-tall copy of his own eye and exhibited it in a Chicago park, shocking passers-by into reconsidering the meaning and use of the “eye.”
Does Tasset similarly intend for his Pieta to jolt us, domesticating it à la Sered, breaking barriers in a new and surprising way?
The earliest Pietas, to which his piece harkens, were themselves domestications of the divine. An artistic innovation of the Gothic age in Europe, the Pieta came into being at a time when God had grown to seem overly distant and the faithful felt spiritually undernourished.
During the Middle Ages, art historian Michael Camille asserts, “people came closest to God during the mass.” At the climax of the liturgy, priests consecrated the host, transforming the bread into the body of Christ. They then raised the host, giving their parishioners the opportunity to behold what they considered the Body of their savior—a moment of great meaning.

However, the liturgy changed. Priests turned toward the altar when they raised the consecrated host, preventing most worshippers from witnessing or interacting with God-the-Son.
Camille writes that Christians reacted by seeking “other, more intimate, modes of devotional experience.” They embraced new images and modes of presentation that artists created to dramatize Christ’s humanity. These images, depicting the Holy Mother and Child as animated and life-like, restored an accessible, divine presence.
The Renaissance artist Michelangelo, creator of perhaps the best-known Pieta, depicted God as a gray-haired, older man when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Today, few people realize what an innovation this was. Michelangelo’s vision of God was “a far cry from [the] imperial images of God that had otherwise been created in the West dating back to the time of late antiquity” (see
Gone from Michelangelo’s God were the royal garments suitable for an all-powerful ruler—the God of the Sistine Chapel is barefoot and clad in a simple tunic that exposes his arm and legs. Michelangelo painted God “in a state that is not untouchable and remote from Man, but one that is accessible to him” (see Graham-Dixon).
Tasset is the latest in a long line of artists interested in exploring the humanity in the divine. Because he did not produce yet another, traditional sculpture of Mary and her crucified Son, but rather fashioned a sculpture that alludes to this relationship, viewers are jolted into seeing the Pieta anew and powerfully induced to recreate a more archetypal Pieta in their imaginations.
Tasset’s father-and-son rendition succeeds at reminding the viewer of its link to more explicitly religious figures, and by fostering an intimate encounter, makes the divine accessible to “Man.” 


For images of Tony Tasset’s “Pieta,” visit:;jsessionid=3DA85DAC08496908333CA75DD242835B?t:state:flow=655d508b-8466-40b4-a80b-2516c1ef5c38.
Small, Rachel. “Tony Tasset’s Three Story Eyeball.” Interview Magazine. Accessed April 21, 2015.
Sered, S. “The Domesticating of Religion: The Spiritual Guardianship of Elderly Jewish Women.” MAN, New Series 23:3 (Sept. 1988), 506-521.
Camille, Michael. Gothic Art: Glorious Visions. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. New York: MJF Books, 2009.

Image: Křivák's Pieta, 1390-1400, Archdiocesan Museum of Olomouc, Czech Republic; Credit for photo: Martin Vavřík / Wikimedia Commons.

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Author, Myriam Renaud, is the Managing Editor of Sightings and a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Renaud was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. She is editing, with Joshua Daniel, a book of essays exploring the relationship between God and the moral life.


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Myriam Renaud

Author, Myriam Renaud (PhD '18), is a former editor of Sightings, and has written about religion for The Atlantic, The Conversation, Religion & Politics, The Globe Post, and more. She is co-editor, with William Schweiker, of Multi-Religious Perspectives on a Global Ethic: Toward A Common Morality (Routledge, 2020). Currently, she is at work on an academic monograph, Toward a Moral God and a Humanizing Theology, and a general audience monograph, White Evangelicals in America.