MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1498 – 1499
Pietà, Italian for ‘pity’ and Latin for ‘piety’, is a heart-wrenching depiction of the Blessed Virgin cradling the dead body of her Son Jesus in her loving arms. Bearing no scriptural reference, the Pieta developed as a thirteenth-century German devotion and was regarded as the Vesperbild or ‘the evening picture’. However, you will agree that the word Pieta is synonymous with Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece. Through this article, we will explore to experience its artistic beauty and belief.
In 1497, a twenty-four-year-old Michelangelo was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres to create ‘the most beautiful work of marble in Rome’ for his future tomb. The artist did not hesitate to rise to the patron’s challenge. He scouted and secured the perfect block of Carrara marble and chiseled stone to flesh. So sublime and admirable was its execution that art-historian Giorgio Vasari praised Michelangelo’s genius saying:
‘It is indeed a miracle that a block of stone, formless at the beginning, was brought to such perfection which nature habitually struggles to create in flesh! No other sculptor, not even the rarest artist with all his hard work, can ever reach this level of design and grace.’
But what makes this sculpture so special? Undoubtedly it is the profound relation shared by the Mother and her Son. She who cradled her little baby now carries her dead Son. Adhering to the ideals of the Renaissance, Michelangelo augments this affiliation through naturalism. Pyramidal in shape, the body of the beautiful Virgin is enlarged. This was suited to carry the physique of a fully grown man, her Son into her lap.
The proportions are not symmetrical. Mary would tower in stature over her Son if she stood up. Michelangelo, with creative genius, hides this enlargement with exquisite, lifelike folds of a full-length drapery. The folds set the sculpture into motion and enhance its alternation of light and shadow. The ruffling pleats also highlight Michelangelo’s excellent virtuosity and his thrill to drill marble pieces into deeply-cut works of art.
Notice closely the youthfulness of Mary. Strangely yet subtly, Michelangelo presents the Blessed Mother as the young immaculate maiden. She is far too youthful to be the mother of a thirty-three-year-old. The artist was criticized for his imagery. However, Michelangelo’s depiction of the Blessed Virgin was coupled by a virtue. As a third-order Franciscan, the devout artist believed in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin’s incorruptible purity. Countering the critique, he stated:
‘Do you not know that chaste women stay afresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?’
Now observe the rendering of Christ’s body. He appears not bloodied and bruised but rather peaceful and resigned. The loss of life is made apparent through the exposed rib cage and the contracted abdomen. The expression on His face is gentle, in harmony with his joints, his arms, torso, and legs, which are realistically articulated with finely wrought veins and pulses. His exposed thorax reveals His vulnerability and innocence.
The throbbing soul of the sculpture is indeed the unique bond shared by the Mother and her Son. The Virgin is confronted with the reality of death – a brutal, undeserved, unjust, criminal death of her beloved Son on the Cross. And yet the Blessed Mother neither sobs nor mourns. Rather repeating her famous words of faith she silently surrenders– ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to Thy Word.’ It is a moment of grace-filled acceptance – the acceptance of God’s will in face of the impossible.
As Mary tilts her head towards Christ, His head is thrown back, helpless by human death. And yet the Virgin recognizes the newness of life here. Look at Mary’s left hand. Exposed, it gently invites us to meditate on the passion, death, and resurrection of her Son Jesus. The Blessed Mother presents to us the Body of Christ. What a profound unison in relation. At the Cross, Jesus gave us His Mother and from them on, at every moment, Mother Mary gives us her Son Jesus. Even amidst chaos, Mother Mary always leads us to life.
© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
Did You Know: The Pieta is the only sculpture signed by Michelangelo? Besides, it has led an eventful life. In May 1972, the Pieta was attacked by a mentally disturbed geologist. He attacked the sculpture with his hammer shouting, ‘I am Jesus Christ. I have risen from the dead’. The result of the fifteen blows was a disfigured Mary sans her arm and a chunk of her nose. Painstakingly restored, today the statue is housed in bullet-proof glass and placed at the right of the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica.