A pietà in virtual reality.
Take the place of the
holy virgin. Hold the
body of your son. And contemplate your loss.

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In front of you there is endless darkness. Behind you a sunlit landscape filled with the promise of a new beginning: earth, saved by the sacrifice of your son. You are his mother. Nothing can erase your sorrow. You gaze into the abyss and weep forever.

Compassie is the Flemish word for compassion, one of principal emotions that the traditional pietà scene evokes. After his death, the body of Jesus was taken from the cross and laid on his mother’s lap. This scene has been depicted in thousands of paintings and sculptures, by artists such as Michelangelo and Rogier van der Weyden. Compassie humbly attempts to follow and continue that tradition. To offer a moment of silence, an opportunity for contemplation, a prayer, even for those who do not believe.

Compassie was created by Michael Samyn under the umbrella of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds, a large project by Song of Songs to explore traditional Christian iconography through digital technologies. Song of Songs is the current incarnation of Tale of Tales, the former independent videogames studio run by Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn, creators of The Endless Forest, The Path, The Graveyard, Luxuria Superbia and Sunset.

Compassie features several elements that return time and again in historical depictions of this scene. A ceramic jar that belongs to Maria Magdalena and that contains the ointment that she used on Jesus’ feet. She is often seen in paintings in the act of closing this jar. The skull refers to the name of the place where the crucifixion happened, Golgotha, the mount of the skull, more specifically the skull of Adam, the first human, whose remains are believed to be buried there. There’s even a myth about how the cross was made from the wood of a tree that grew on Adam’s bones. Many depictions of the pietà show the cross in the background. This organization is often copied in presentations of pietà sculptures, such as Michelangelo’s masterpiece in Saint-Peters Basilica. On the ceiling of the chapel where this sculpture is housed, there’s a fresco of the Triumph of the Cross: angels lifting the cross upwards. The architectural arch under which the scene takes place is a recurring structural element in many paintings, not just of the pietà but also of the related mother and child pictures or of sacred conversation scenes. The Romanesque style of the arch refers directly to the Roman occupation of the area at the time of the crucifixion and was inspired by cloister architecture. Also the landscape was inspired by renaissance art. A fascination with the “wrong” perspective in paintings as those by Hieronymus Bosch lead to creating a space that bypasses the cartesian rules of rendering perspective in computer simulations.

 


Michael Samyn
invented, created, produced, directed and programmed Compassie.

Jessica Palmer
created the architecture, the props, the plants, the cross and the angels.

Moné Sisoukraj
modeled and textured the body of Jesus.

Zoe McCarthy
made the landscape, the trees, the mountains and the clouds in the sky.

Additional artwork by Auriea Harvey. Sounds by Kris Force, Suonidigallipoli & Marinosr77. Music composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and performed by Michael Samyn on computer and viola da gamba. Supported by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF).

I have made a pietà but I am not religious. I love art though, especially art from the renaissance and baroque eras. Which often addresses religious stories. The feelings I experience in front of such art are deeply spiritual. I'm not sure if I can tell the difference between the beautiful and the divine.

Anyway, iconography and narratives of Christianity are central to the culture I exist in. To witness them makes me feel rooted, embraced by a civilization that has been around for a while. Even atheists in the West uphold many Christian values. It’s part of who we are. And Christianity hooks into our life on earth just like other religions do. As the planet revolves around the sun and the days get longer in the northern hemisphere, Christianity celebrates the return of the light during the Easter period when Christ is crucified and resurrects. Celestial events impact all of us. Somehow, it moves me to express them through Christian symbols.

The biggest challenge for me as a contemporary artist was to create a traditional scene without adding a modern twist. I wanted this piece to be sincere and respectful. I wanted it to become part of tradition, rather than breaking with it. That turned out to be much harder for me than making a joke about conventional themes, or contrast them with pop culture aesthetics, or adding critical notes. I had to go against my nature as a modern person. It took quite a bit of prototyping and resisting temptation to arrive at the present result. But I’m glad I did it. To submit myself to the unquestioning creation of beauty has been a wonderful exercise in humility.

The contrast is of course obvious: I’m making conventional art in a highly non-conventional medium driven by hypercommercial technology. But I like computers. They offer us a way to create and experience art that fascinates me. I have made many websites and videogames in the past. Virtual Reality is my current focus. At first the headset seemed like just another screen. But VR is different. It gives me the opportunity to create things that feel like realities, rather than pictures to look at. And that’s exactly where it connects to the old art that I like. Before artists got good at depicting reality, and long before photographic technologies, the objects they created felt precisely like worlds to me, like pieces of reality, not pictures of it.

Counterintuitively it seems to take a certain amount of abstraction to makes things feel real, rather than simply look real. In VR too, a scene tends to feel more magical when it does not look photographically realistic. Maybe because it’s amazing that these objects that cannot exist nevertheless feel real to us. Most of the aesthetic choices in Compassie were inspired by paintings, not by photographs. Even if computer technology continues to increase its capacity to render things photo-realistically, it is in essence a technology to create with rather than reproduce. And as such, from an artistic point of view, computers are in fact more closely related to brushes and chisels than to cameras.

The simulation of an environment that surrounds us is what attracts me to the digital. It's theatrical in the way that the baroque is. And I like that sort of playfulness. During creation I found myself thinking, when confronted with a design problem, "How would a baroque artist solve this?" Interactivity, to me, is not central to this medium, but only a way to help the user understand that what they are witnessing is a living world, and not just a picture of one. In Compassie interaction is reduced to the minimum (you can raise up your arms a bit) because anything else would disrupt the atmosphere too much. But it's enough. And even now the piece requires some discipline from the spectator. They are responsible for their own experience. Precisely as in any other art form. But this responsibility, this choice, this decision about how to act, deepens the experience. Much like stillness in a temple or a museum will make a bigger impact than running around doing summersaults. A work of art is like a musical instrument: it can produce beautiful sounds but only when played well.

Compassie delights me more than anything I’ve made before. Because it gives me an opportunity to be sad. There’s so many corpses in my life. Dearly departed. Several of which I mourn for in secret. Hiding behind the VR headset. Where no-one can see you cry. It feels so luxurious to be able to be sad! Just sad, just to be filled with this enormous feeling of failure and desperation, to let it expand and take over your world, with nobody telling you to cheer up or look at the bright side or to relax or fix yourself. Just sitting there in the dark, in the absolute, endless darkness of empty cyberspace.

For me this is about loss. An opportunity to mourn for the things that have disappeared. Or are about to disappear. On a personal level. But also on a global level. I believe we are living through a time of transition. Transition away from an untenable and disagreeable state, true, but nevertheless unsettling. What will need to be sacrificed for our salvation? How will our new lives be in the new world? Or, in the other scenario in which we don't choose to change: how will we cope with all the things that will disappear? How can we mourn the enormous loss that we are in the process of experiencing?

After the Coronavirus pandemic, I hope to present Compassie as a physical installation. But for now, we will make do with the solitary experience of a VR program at home. But maybe that’s more fitting anyway.

— Michael Samyn, Roma, 3 April 2021

Rogier van der Weyden (1435)
Rogier van der Weyden (1441)
Dieric Bouts (1460)
Hans Memling (1475)
Sandro Botticelli (1495)
Pietro Perugino (1495)
Michelangelo Buonarotti (1499)
Sandro Botticelli (1500)
anonymous (1500)
Gerard David (1515)
Giovanni Bellini (1516)
Gerard_David (1520)
Bronzino (1545)