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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Mater Dolorosa (translated as mother in pain or distress), was commissioned by Emperor Charles V for Titian to create.

There were two different works with the same name. They are both religious works depicting the mother Mary at the cross after her son, Jesus, was crucified. The first commission was in 1550 and completed 1553-4 with the figure showing her hands together. A later work was commissioned with the hands apart, and was commissioned and completed between 1554-5. Both works were commissioned by Emperor Charles V.

As in most of his works, Titian adds depth and dimension to his figures. This adds emphasis to the emotions that the figure portrays. In both of the Mater Dolorosa works, the figure has a subtle light around her which makes her seem to have an ethereal quality. She is no ordinary figure; Mater Dolorosa is the mother of Christ, and therefore her grieving is especially profound. She appears real and at the same time, surreal. This effect compliments the emotional subject and influences how the work is perceived.

In the first Mater Dolorosa, with the hands together, there are no tears. The hands are clasped very tightly together in prayer and the relaxed look on the face of the figure contrasts with the hands, revealing Mater Dolorosa's inner anguish at her son's crucifixion. She appears to be restraining her feelings by gripping her hands together.

The later work, with hands held apart, shows tears of the Mater Dolorosa to display her grieving and sorrow. Her hands are open wide as if receiving a spiritual connection with her only son who has died. If the two works were viewed in order of their creation; the earlier Mater Dolorosa shown tightly gripping her hands in prayer would appear to be restraining her inner feelings of anguish, and the later work with tears from Mater Dolorosa, appears to turn those feelings into an expression of sorrow.

Both of the Mater Dolorosa by Titian appear to be very alive and fluid as figures. They are posing naturally and the subtle depths in the figure's faces give them natural expressions; the depths in the clothing add to the three-dimensional view. The surreal effect from the subtle light around the figures and the oil painted on a wooden panel increases the luminosity in this portrait. The later Mater Dolorosa was painted on a light marble, giving a further surreal effect to this portrait by accentuating the light. Both these paintings are unique in not having canvas supports but using wood and stone instead. They are now kept at the Prado Museum in Madrid.