Guest post by Pat Knepley
The most famous Pieta is the large sculpture in white Carrara marble by Michelangelo. This masterpiece is magnificent for several reasons – its size, skill of execution, triangular composition, and beauty. But there are many interesting facts about this sculpture that make it even more compelling.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) was a young man of 21 when he came to Rome from Florence in order to secure commissions. He had already had some commissions as a young master in his hometown of Florence but left there when there was political upheaval and no longer had the patrons to support him and his art. When Michelangelo arrived in Rome, he found favor with a French cardinal who was a representative to the Vatican. This cardinal commissioned Michelangelo to build a statue to decorate his tomb in St. Peters. Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he completed his masterwork of The Pieta bringing incredible humanity and beauty out of the cold marble that he selected from the quarry himself.
This pieta was different from others that had been created before it. The Virgin Mary is depicted as younger than what her age would have been at the time of Jesus’ death. When asked about this Michelangelo explained that Mary’s sinless nature (a common Catholic belief) would have meant that her body and beauty would not fade with time. The look on Mary’s face is not grief, but peace, as if she is accepting this outcome of her dead son in order to fulfill God’s divine plan. Mary’s left arm is outstretched, as if inviting us to join in her sorrow with her.
The body of Christ is lean and muscular in the classical style, but not overly so, thereby blending the classical with the natural. His limp lifeless body is stretched across Mary’s lap as she cradles him one last time. Mary’s torso is covered in the many folds of her dress so that we see only her face, hands and feet. Thereby our attention is drawn to the figure of Christ and her serene face as she looks upon Him.
The marble is highly polished, creating a supernatural glow to the figures. And the pieta is the only sculpture signed by Michelangelo. The story has it that the Pieta was on display in the Basilica, and Michelangelo was listening to admirers. When a visitor attributed the work to another competing artist of the time, this enraged Michelangelo. At a later time, he set about to carve his signature into the sash across Mary’s chest. Inscribed are the words: “Angelus Bonarotus Florentinus Faciebat” or “This was made by Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti.”
The Greek artist, El Greco, who lived and worked in Spain in the 16th century, also painted the Pieta in 1592. He was influenced by the Michelangelo Pieta when he saw his works in Rome when El Greco lived there from 1570 to 1577. The classical approach to the human figure, the attention to anatomy, the careful placement of the figures in a triangular composition, and the emotion it evokes all hearken back to the characteristics of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Though all the same subject matter, each artist that depicts the poignant scene of the dead Savior in the arms of His mother has captured a unique approach and thus response. We cannot help but be drawn into the story and share in the agony of the loss this woman feels, as she remembers her infant son she cradled when he came into the world, and years later this broken body she embraces as he leaves it. This is the essence, and beauty, of the Pieta.
If you’d like to learn more, check out the following short (6 min) video about Michelangelo’s pieta:
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