Van Gogh at the Vatican

Inside the Vatican Museums, after you exit the Raphael Rooms and make your way to the Sistine Chapel, you will find a small Vincent Van Gogh painting called The Pieta, inspired by one of Van Gogh’s favourite painters, Eugene Delacroix. The religious work is the only Van Gogh in the Vatican and its atypical style leads some people to walk right by without ever realizing it is one of the 900 works created by the painter over his short but productive career. The painting can be found in Room 2 of the Contemporary Art Collection.

The Pieta by Vincent Van Gogh

The Pieta by Vincent Van Gogh

The Pieta by Vincent Van Gogh was donated to the Vatican Museums by the diocese of New York in 1973 and it is one of two versions of the painting done by Van Gogh. Much like the Pieta Statue by Michelangelo, Van Gogh’s painting shows the Virgin Mary with the dead body of Christ after he was crucified.

Van Gogh painted two versions of this painting in different sizes. The smaller one, owned by the Vatican is 41.5 cm X 34 cm and the larger version which is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is nearly twice the size at 73 X 60.5 cm. The Pieta that is in the Vatican was painted for the artist’s sister, Willemien less than a year before Van Gogh’s death in 1890.

The idea for the painting came while Van Gogh was in a mental institute. His brother Theo sent him a gift while he was there – a lithograph of The Pieta by Eugene Delacroix. Unfortunately, the gift was soon damaged.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo “the lithograph of Delacroix, The Pieta, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled. I was sad about it, then in the meantime, I occupied myself painting it, and you will see it one day”.

The original Eugene Delacroix painting of the Pieta painted in 1840 is a tiny painting measuring just 35 X 27 cm in the National Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Eugene Delacroix’s Pieta

If you compare the two paintings you will notice the composition is the exact same but Van Gogh chose his own colors. It is likely that he had never seen the original painting and only had the black and white lithograph as a reference. The Van Gogh painting is also a mirror image to the Delacroix painting as he only had the lithograph as his reference as lithographs are mirrored images to the original artwork.

A Brief Biography of Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh was born in Groot Zundert in the Netherlands on the 30th of March, 1853. After a troubled upbringing, he became a minister of the church just like his father before eventually becoming a painter in his late twenties. Although Van Gogh only painted for around ten years before his death in 1890 at just 37 years old he left almost 900 paintings behind.

At the beginning of his painting career in the Netherlands, his style and subjects were of a very dark and bleak nature before he moved to Paris in March 1886 and discovered the Impressionists. While in France, his paintings became a lot brighter in colour and a lot more expressionistic in style.

After leaving Paris he moved to Arles in the South of France where he was later joined by the painter Paul Gauguin. On Christmas Eve, 1888 Van Gogh famously cut off a piece of his ear with a razor and later committed himself to the mental institute in Saint-Remy, which is where he painted The Pieta after Delacroix.