The Pieta is most often a subject for sculpture - the most famous example being Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Nonetheless, countless painters have tackled the theme as well. Which one of these pieta paintings is the most poignant?
In my humble and uneducated opinion, this would have to be William Adolphe Bouguereau's Pieta painted in 1876.
Bouguereau places Mary and Jesus directly in the middle of the canvas and frames them in an arch of grieving angels. The mourning angels amplify the pity and sadness of the scene. Bouguereau eschews any background. Only blackness exists behind the figures. The items placed in the foreground - the crown of thorns, a bowl, jug, and sponge - remind the viewer of the crucifixion and the agony Mary must have suffered on that day as she watched her son die before her and the heartbreaking tasks that awaited her once he was taken from the cross.
The ornate, almost Byzantine-style halo draw the viewer's eye Mary's face, and this is where Bouguereau's genius in evoking pity and compassion become evident. Mary's expression is what makes Bouguereau's Pieta the most poignant. While other pietas usually feature Mary looking upon Christ or looking forlorn towards the sky, Bouguereau chooses to have Mary stare straight ahead from the canvas directly at the viewer.
As Mary fixes her mournful gaze on the viewer, the viewer is left no escape. A mere look at Mary's face is all it takes for the compassion to materialize - the viewer is practically forced into a position where he or she cannot help but feel Mary's pain and suffering. Truly affecting.