Artefact of the Month

Late-19th-Century Sasvár Pietà

April, 2017


Late-19th-Century Sasvár Pietà

Our Artefact-of-the-Month for Easter is a folk representation of the scene of Jesus’ death:  a pietà from Sasvár, notable for the personal inscription written on its back.

The Upper Hungarian town of Sasvár (today Šaštín, Slovakia) was once one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Hungary, where for centuries, a famous devotional sculpture drew crowds of the faithful seeking forgiveness, healing, and intervention on the part of the Virgin Mary.  According to legend, the statue was carved by Angéla Bakics, wife of Governer Count Imre Czobor, in 1564 as an offering of gratitude for the subdual of her hostility towards men.  Placed in a roadside shrine, the pietà was soon known for its miraculous powers, which attracted masses of pilgrims seeking aid for various causes.

The earliest known depictions of Mary with the body of her son in her arms date to early 14th-century Germany, presumably the fount from which the subject matter spread to the rest of Europe.  Although it is not known exactly when the Sasvár devotional sculpture was created, comparison with analogous works suggests the traditional 16th-century date as a realistic one.

In 1732, Sasvár witnessed the arrival of the Pauline monks, whose order had recently reorganised in the wake of the Ottoman conquest.  Playing a key role in the choice of locations was the carved linden-wood pietà in its triangular shrine.   Having completed their elegant Baroque pilgrimage church, the Paulines placed the miraculous sculpture inside, on the main altar.  The 18th century was a time of renewal for the Catholic Church, an age when old forms of religious practice were strengthened and new ones introduced, and pilgrimage sites became mass attractions.   Though the Pauline order was disbanded in 1786 under a decree by the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, the pietà retained its position on the church’s main altar, where it continues to draw the faithful today.

Over the centuries, visitors to the site have bought large quantities of souvenirs:  reproductions of devotional images, icons, rosary beads, carvings, medallions, and even moulded, decorated gingerbread biscuits.  Six-inch, polychromatic painted carvings of the main altar statue, however, were particularly popular and a tremendously common sight among Hungarian religious objects.  The trade in such figurines, which relied on specialist woodcarvers working at various skill levels, dates to the mid-to-late 18th century.  Though Christ’s pose, and particularly the arm that hangs stiffly to the ground, recalls the original work, the colouring of the figurines developed according to its own tradition, which featured a base of bottle green, red for Mary’s dress, various shades of blue for her cloak, and off-white for Jesus’ body.  The souvenirs also reflect varying modes of expression:  while the original model was dynamic and richly detailed, the smaller reproductions follow a simpler pattern, with static forms in stiff poses. 

The Museum of Ethnography owns nearly twenty Sasvár pietà figurines collected from locations across the country.  Some were originally placed in the devotional cabinets, known as “Houses of Mary,” that once adorned the “sacred corners” of traditional peasant “clean rooms” or parlours.  Others were kept on bedside stands or shelves with other religious objects, photographs, and souvenir mugs.  The piece shown here bears an intriguing pencilled inscription on the back:  “Brought from Sasvár in 1898 by Erzsébett Sógor as a permanent memento”.  Thus, it is all but certain that its owner once touched the original sculpture – the back side of the altar of Sasvár – to receive a measure of its “power”.


Krisztina Sedlmayr


Inv. No.: 69.68.1