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Pietà, as a theme in Christian art, depiction of the Virgin Mary supporting the body of the dead Christ. Some representations of the Pietà include John the Apostle, Mary Magdalene, and sometimes other figures on either side of the Virgin, but the great majority show only Mary and her Son. The Pietà was widely represented in both painting and sculpture, being one of the most poignant visual expressions of popular concern with the emotional aspects of the lives of Christ and the Virgin.
The theme, which has no literary source but grew out of the theme of the lamentation over Christ’s body, first appeared in the early 14th century in Germany. It soon spread to France and enjoyed great popularity in northern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although the Pietà remained mostly a Franco-German theme, its supreme representation is that completed by Michelangelo in 1499 and housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Influenced by the northern style, Michelangelo draped the figure of Christ across Mary’s lap. Through this pyramidal design and the details of his figures, Michelangelo created a scene that displayed at once agony, solemnity, and heroic resignation.
The format of the Virgin bearing the body of Christ on her knees was standard until the 16th century, when, influenced by the Renaissance concern with logic and proportions, artists usually depicted Christ lying at the Virgin’s feet, with only his head propped against her knees. This form was adopted by Italian Baroque art and was passed on to Spain, Flanders, and Holland.
Most religious art suffered a decline after the 17th century, but, because of its special emotional appeal, the Pietà continued to be a vital theme through the 19th century.
Michelangelo carved a number of works in Florence during his time with the Medici, but in the 1490s he left Florence and briefly went to Venice, Bologna, and then to Rome, where he lived from 1496-1501. In 1497, a cardinal named Jean de Billheres commissioned Michelangelo to create a work of sculpture to go into a side chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The resulting work – the Pieta – would be so successful that it helped launch Michelangelo’s career unlike any previous work he had done.
Michelangelo claimed that the block of Carrara marble he used to work on this was the most “perfect” block he ever used, and he would go on to polish and refine this work more than any other statue he created.
The scene of the Pieta shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after his crucifixion, death, and removal from the cross, but before he was placed in the tomb. This is one of the key events from the life of the Virgin, known as the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which were the subject of Catholic devotional prayers. The subject matter was one which would have probably been known by many people, but in the late fifteenth century it was depicted in artworks more commonly in France and Germany than in Italy.
This was a special work of art even in the Renaissance because at the time, multi-figured sculptures were rare. These two figures are carved so as to appear in a unified composition which forms the shape of a pyramid, something that other Renaissance artists (e.g. Leonardo) also favored.
An examination of each figure reveals that their proportions are not entirely natural in relation to the other. Although their heads are proportional, the Virgin’s body is larger than Christ’s body. She appears so large that if she stood up, she would likely tower over her son. The reason Michelangelo did this was probably because it was necessary so that the Virgin could support her son on her lap had her body been smaller, it might have been very difficult or awkward for her to have held an adult male as gracefully as she does. To assist in this matter, Michelangelo has amassed the garments on her lap into a sea of folded drapery to make her look larger. While this drapery serves this practical purpose, it also allowed Michelangelo to display his virtuosity and superb technique when using a drill to cut deeply into the marble. After his work on the marble was complete, the marble looked less like stone and more like actual cloth because of its multiplicity of natural-looking folds, curves, and deep recesses.
In her utter sadness and devastation, she seems resigned to what has happened, and becomes enveloped in graceful acceptance. Michelangelo’s talent in carving drapery is matched by his handling of the human forms in the Christ and the Virgin, both of whom retain a sweet tenderness despite the very tragic nature of this scene. This is, of course, the moment when the Virgin is confronted with the reality of the death of her son. In her utter sadness and devastation, she seems resigned to what has happened, and becomes enveloped in graceful acceptance. Christ, too, is depicted almost as if he is in a peaceful slumber, and not one who has been bloodied and bruised after hours of torture and suffering. In supporting Christ, the Virgin’s right hand does not come into direct contact with his flesh, but instead it is covered with a cloth which then touches Christ’s side. This signifies the sacredness of Christ’s body. Overall, these two figures are beautiful and idealized, despite their suffering. This reflects the High Renaissance belief in Neo-Platonic ideals in that beauty on earth reflected God’s beauty, so these beautiful figures were echoing the beauty of the divine.
Around the time the work was finished, there was a complaint against Michelangelo because of the way he depicted the Virgin. She appears rather young – so young, in fact, that she could scarcely be the mother of a thirty-three-year-old son. Michelangelo’s answer to this criticism was simply that women who are chaste retain their beauty longer, which meant that the Virgin would not have aged like other women usually do.
Another noteworthy incident after the carving was complete involves the inscription on the diagonal band running over the Virgin’s torso. Vasari tells us about the reason for this inscription in one of his passages about the life of Michelangelo:
Here is perfect sweetness in the expression of the head, harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the pulses and veins so wrought, that in truth Wonder herself must marvel that the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute so divinely and so perfectly, in so short a time, a work so admirable and it is certainly a miracle that a stone without any shape at the beginning should ever have been reduced to such perfection as Nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Such were Michelagnolo’s love and zeal together in this work, that he left his name a thing that he never did again in any other work written across a girdle that encircles the bosom of Our Lady. And the reason was that one day Michelagnolo, entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan.” Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.
Vasari’s Lives of the Artists
This was the only work of Michelangelo to which he signed his name.
The Pieta became famous right after it was carved. Other artists started looking at it because of its greatness, and Michelangelo’s fame spread. Since the artist lived another six decades after carving the Pieta, he witnessed the reception of the work by generations of artists and patrons through much of the sixteenth century.
In more modern times, the Pieta has experienced some colorful events. In 1964, it was lent to the New York World’s Fair afterwards, Pope Paul VI said it wouldn’t be lent out again and would remain at the Vatican. In 1972, a Hungarian-born man (later found to be mentally disturbed) rushed the statue with a hammer and started hitting it, including the left arm of the Virgin, which came off, and her head, breaking her nose and some of her left eye. Today, you can visit the statue in New St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
THE VATICAN PIETÀ BY MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI
Michelangelo’s Pietà is one of the most beautiful sculptures in the history of art and one of the most representative works of the Renaissance ideal.
It is one of the most important pieces the Florentine artist ever produced, possibly only matched in its significance by the statue of David, the Creation of Adam (the most famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel), by the Tondo Doni, and another Pietà, the Rondanini Pietà, which, unfinished, represents Michelangelo’s spiritual and creative testament.
The Pietà was completed when Michelangelo was very young: there are different theories regarding the exact date of its completion, but he was either 25 or 26 years old.
Michelangelo was born in 1475 in Caprese, close to Arezzo, but moved to Florence with his family at a very young age. Here, at the age of 13 he was apprenticed to the famous painter Ghirlandaio, and later attended the priory of San Marco, a sort of academy of the arts financed by Lorenzo de' Medici. When the Medici were ousted and replaced by Girolamo Savonarola’s Republic, Michelangelo left Florence, moving to Venice and then to Bologna for a brief period. After returning to Tuscany in 1495, he set off for Rome the following year.
MICHELANGELO IN ROME
The story of how Michelangelo came to Rome and went on to sculpt the Pietà, now on display in St. Peter’s Basilica, is quite incredible.
What we know with certainty is that, while in Florence in 1495, he worked on a small statue of a sleeping Cupid. The merchant Baldassarre del Milanese sold this statue, passing it off as a piece of Greek antiquity, to the powerful cardinal Raffaele Riario, who resided in Rome, but was originally from Liguria.
It is unclear if Michelangelo was aware of this scheme. According to some accounts, it was Michelangelo’s new patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, who organized this deception against the cardinal. In reality, it was more of a joke than a real scam, in the spirit of the very Florentine Burla, or prank: Lorenzo, known as the Commoner, wanted to show that no alleged art expert would have been able to distinguish that cupid from an original of the classical period. According to this version of events, Michelangelo played an active role in making the statue look antique: he wanted to prove himself worthy of the greats of ancient Greece.
News of the scam aroused a great deal of interest in the Papal City and Raffaele Riario became the laughing stock of the curia and of Roman nobility.
Irritated, the cardinal sent Jacopo Galli, a Roman banker and nobleman, to discover the identity of the sculptor of the Cupid: Michelangelo was brought to Rome, where he apologised to Raffaele Riario and went on to sculpt the Bacchus for him.
The sculptor took up residence in one of Jacopo Galli’s houses. Galli - acting perhaps as Michelangelo’s agent – found him several jobs, and it was precisely through him that Michelangelo secured the commission to carve the Vatican Pietà.
COMMISSION OF THE STATUE OF THE PIETÀ
In 1497, cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas commissioned Michelangelo to carve “a life-sized Virgin Mary, dressed, with a Dead Christ in her arms”.
Jean Bilhères was the cardinal of Santa Sabina and French governor of Rome by appointment to the French King Charles VIII of France. He commissioned the statue of the Pietà for the chapel of Saint Petronilla, in the Vatican. This church belonged to the King of France and was located on the side of the transept of the old Basilica of Saint Peter.
The celebrations for the jubilee of 1500 were approaching and many French pilgrims were expected to visit the chapel: Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà was to be presented to them as a masterpiece donated by a fellow countryman.
In the contract for the commission of the statue, Jacopo Galli specifically assured the Cardinal that this would have been “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome and that no other artist today could do it better”.
Michelangelo was incredibly demanding in his choice of raw materials and it took him 9 months to choose the exact block of marble and have it transported from the quarries of Carrara to Rome.
The official contract for the creation of the Pietà was signed in August 1498, and it stipulated that the sculpture would have been delivered in just one year’s time. From the receipts, it is not clear whether the sculptor respected the stipulated consignment date: he did receive a payment from Cardinal Bilhères’ Executrix, the Ghinucci Bank, in July 1500, which seems to be the most likely date of completion. However, there is an unusual payment, made by Michelangelo himself, to a certain "Sandro muratore" (Sandro the Brick layer), that appears only once in his records, on the 6 th of August 1499: he might have been paying this person to move the statue of the Pietà to its place in the Chapel of St. Petronilla. If this is the case then Michelangelo respected all the contractual deadlines. Curiously, on that very same day, the 6 th of August 1499, Jean Bilhères died.
LOCATION IN SAINT PETER’S BASILICA
Where exactly is Michelangelo’s Pietà located within Saint Peter’s Basilica? It’s very easy to find: it’s located in the first chapel to the right of the nave. However, it was only moved to its current location 250 years after its creation. As was previously mentioned, the statue was initially housed inside the Chapel of Saint Petronilla, the French church adjacent to the transept of the old Basilica. According to Vasari, in his biography of Michelangelo, it was then transferred to the church of Santa Maria della Febbre, always in Saint Peter’s. It was moved to its final location in the mid 18th century.
ANALYSIS OF THE VATICAN PIETÀ: SIZE, SHAPE AND SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
The Pietà is defined as the depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the dying Christ in her arms. This was a popular scene in Northern European art of the late 15th century, and was a variation of the German wooden “Vesperbild”, that were mostly carved out of wood.
Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà is 174cm tall, 195cm wide and only 69cm deep. Its shallow depth might have been dictated by the fact that the statue was always intended to be placed in a niche.
The sculpture is pyramidal. Despite the commission to build a life-sized sculpture, upon careful observation you can see that Christ is smaller than the Virgin. This was done to allow Mary to easily hold the body of her son, but it was also interpreted as recalling Jesus’ infancy. This difference in size is camouflaged by the rich drapery of Mary’s garments.
The marble of the sculpture is so shiny it was said that Michelangelo spent as much time polishing his masterpiece as he did sculpting it. This desire to give the statue such luminosity was probably to contrast the darkness of the Chapel of Saint Petronilla.
INTERESTING FACTS: MICHELANGELO’S SIGNATURE, A YOUTHFUL MARY, THE “TOOTH OF SIN”
The Pietà is the only work Michelangelo ever signed. In his Lives of the Artists, the art historian Giorgio Vasari tells an interesting tale behind this signature, which he carved on a sash along Mary’s chest. According to his report, shortly after its installation, some visitors from Lombardy came to admire the sculpture and attempted to identify the artist behind it. After much debate, they concluded that it was the work of their fellow countryman, Cristoforo Solari (also called the “hunchback of Milan”). Michelangelo overheard this conversation and decided to hide in the church one night and carve his name on the statue.
However, it appears more likely that Michelangelo was simply following the custom of Tuscan painters of the time a tradition he later abandoned.
Despite being immediately well-received and admired, the Pietà did receive some criticism for the particularly youthful depiction of the Virgin Mary, who resembles an adolescent. This was done intentionally by Michelangelo, as was revealed by his biographers, and there was a theological explanation behind it. The incorruptible Virgin, the immaculate conception, she is the symbol of crystallised youth that never withers the artist also took inspiration from the verses of Dante’s Paradiso: “O Virgin mother, daughter of thy son.
The Pietà has another unusual feature, only this one is much harder to spot: Christ has an extra tooth, a fifth incisor. This was also known as “the tooth of sin” and in the works of other Renaissance artists it was a trait attributed to negative characters. The Christ of the Pietà, on the other hand, was given an extra tooth since, upon his death, he took upon himself the sins of the world.
ATTACK AND RESTORATION
On May 21, 1972, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, Laszlo Toth, eluded the Basilica’s security and repeatedly struck the Pietà with a geologist’s hammer. He broke off Mary’s left arm and damaged her face, breaking off her nose and chipping her left eyelid. The attacker was stopped before he could unleash his rage on the figure of Christ. After being declared insane by a Roman court, he was first confined to an Italian mental hospital, then immediately deported to Australia upon release.
A long debate ensued in the Vatican over how the sculpture was to be restored: one side argued to leave the Virgin Mary’s face disfigured, thus speaking to the violence of our modern age another proposed that it be restored with visible seams where the repairs had been made but it was the third suggestion, that of an integral restoration, that eventually prevailed.
It was concluded that even the smallest crack in the utter perfection of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà could not have been tolerated.
Out of the all the finest works of sculpture completed by Michelangelo, the Pietà is probably the one held most dear by Catholics. A lifeless Jesus is depicted in pose of spiritual abandonment on the lap of an angel-faced Mary.
Juan M Romero | CC BY-SA 4.0
The whole composition evokes a deep sense of sorrow, symbolizing the very virtue after which it is named (piety, which may also be translated as pity or compassion). But not many Catholics may know that the Pietà traveled to New York in 1964 or that it was almost destroyed by a vandal in 1972. Here are some little-known facts about one of the most moving works of Catholic art.
1. It was commissioned by a French cardinal
French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who was looking for “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome” to ornate his tomb, commissioned a 24-year-old Michelangelo to create the Pietà. De Billheres choose a theme that was then popular in Northern European art, that of Mary weeping over her dead son moments after he was taken down from the cross. This was probably the first work of sculpture taken on by Michelangelo where human emotions played such a central role, in contrast to some of his other masterpieces, including the David, where humans are presented in a more detached pose. The end result was a moving work that did indeed become the “most beautiful work of marble in Rome” as requested by his commissioner.
2. The Pietà is the only sculpture signed by Michelangelo
The Pietà is not only Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, it’s also the only one that the master signed. By taking a closer look at Mary’s clothes, visitors will be able to see the artist’s name engraved just below her chest. As explained by art historian Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo decided to sign his work after overhearing passersby attributing it to another sculptor. One night, Michelangelo reportedly showed up with a light and a chisel to make sure that no one would ever question the true authorship of the Pietà.
3. It was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble
The majestic Pietà, measuring 5′ 9″ x 6′ 5″, was carved out of a single piece of white and blue marble from the famous caves of Carrara, in Tuscany. The marble block was extracted by executing a deep cut in the marble cave, in which metallic chisels were later inserted.
4. It was moved to St. Peter’s Basilica 200 years after its creation
For its first 200 years, the Pietà’s home had been the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, a mausoleum near St. Peter’s which was chosen by Cardinal de Billheres as his final resting place. In 1699, it was moved to its current location inside St Peter’s Basilica.
5. It visited New York in 1964
In 1964, US Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman asked Pope John XXIII to display the Pietà as part of the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair. The Vatican agreed, appointing Edward M. Kinney, Director of Purchasing and Shipping of Catholic Relief Service, to manage the logistics. Thousands of Americans and trade fair visitors were thus able to see the statue firsthand, safely located behind a massive plexiglass barrier weighting more than 4,900 pounds.
6. Critics deemed Mary as “too young”
When the statue was completed in 1499, critics noted that Mary looked very graceful but way too young for a woman who was the mother of a 33-year-old man. Michelangelo himself reportedly defended his design choice in his biography: “Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh 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?”
7. It was almost destroyed
On Pentecost Sunday in 1972 Laszlo Toth, a mentally unstable man from Hungary, jumped over the railings of St. Peter’s Basilica and unleashed a furious attack against the Pietà. He hit the statue with a hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ I have risen from the dead!” Before being stopped by security officers, Toth was able to inflict 15 bows to the statue, knocking off Mary’s left arm, the tip of her nose and her cheek. The statue has since been seamlessly restored.
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Pietà is one of the most significant works of Michelangelo’s early career and is notably the only work that he ever signed. It was commissioned by the French Cardinal of St. Denis to be his funeral monument and is currently housed at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Pietà depicts the body of Christ sprawled over Mary’s lap following his crucifixion in a piece truly representative of High Renaissance ideals.
Witness the triangular composition in this piece—a popular style during the High Renaissance.
Interestingly, Pieta is unique for its time as a two-figure sculpture. But even more so, the sculpture further stands apart as a masterpiece with its intricate detailing and realism.
Christ’s skin is realistically marked with the bruises and punctures from his crucifixion, and Mary, as a divine matron, appears young and supple with the defined folds of her garments flowing softly down and out.
16th-century historian, Giorgio Vasari, details Michelangelo’s ability to make the marble look like flesh, noting the muscles and veins on Christ’s body and the gentle expression on Mary’s face. In his book, The Lives of Artists, he goes on to enthuse over Michelangelo’s genius craftsmanship, calling the drapery “inspired,” and referring to Pietà as the perfect expression of harmony.
Truly, this work is an emblem of High Renaissance style firstly in the intellect of its conception, but further in the naturalism and balance of its outcome.
Mary’s calm expression is similarly relevant for its time. Instead of depicting her in emotional ruin over the loss of her child, Michelangelo chose to carefully craft her face to represent the calm, orderly ideals of High Renaissance art.
The thought and labor that went into this piece can only be indicative of Michelangelo’s genius as Vasari suggests however, while many highly praised Michelangelo over Pietà, he was also criticized for its seeming lack of historical accuracy.
In fact, critics disapproved of Michelangelo’s decision to depict Mary as a young woman since Christ was an adult at the time of his crucifixion, but Michelangelo argued that he did so to represent the eternal virginity of her soul. He was quoted by the painter Condivi in John Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, saying, “do you not know that chaste women maintain their freshness far longer than the unchaste?”
In true High Renaissance fashion, Michelangelo sought to create idealized figures while still rendering the intricacies that make them seem so real one might desire to reach out and touch to confirm whether they are, in fact, human, or truly marble.
Michelangelo’s Pieta—Three Hidden Things
In 1498-99 when he was just 24 years-old, Michelangelo (1475-1564) carved his Pieta from one solid rock of Carrera marble. Michelangelo never signed any of his works—except the Pieta.
If you look closely, the sculptor’s signature can be found in a banner /sash across Mary’s chest. It reads:
“MICHAEL*AGELUS*BONAROTUS*FLOREN*FACIEBA.” If one fills in the letters, it reads in Latin “MICHAEL*A(N)GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN(US) FACIEBA(T)” meaning in English “MICHAELANGELUS BUONARROTI FLORENTINE MADE THIS/IT.”
Sixteenth century art historian and contemporary of Michelangelo Giorgi Vasari (1511-1574) in Lives of the Artists tells the tale of why Michelangelo identified himself as the sculptor on the Pieta: “Michelangelo devoted so much love and pains on this work that he put his name on the girdle crossing the Virgin’s breast, a thing he never did again. One morning he had gone to the place to where it stands (originally in Chapel of St. Petronilla in St. Peter’s) and observed a number of Lombards who were praising it loudly. One of them asked another the name of the sculptor, and he replied, ‘Our Gobbo of Milan.’ Michelangelo said nothing, but he resented the injustice of having his work attributed to another, and that night he shut himself in the chapel with a light and his chisels and carved his name on it.”
Notice in this detail image the left foot of Jesus is resting beside a severed branch. The branch in the sculpture is placed next to Jesus’ foot symbolizing that He “grew” from/is a fruit of that tree. Michelangelo is saying, Jesus of Nazareth’s genealogy (Matthew 1:1-16) stems back to the Old Testament “Branch,” one of the many names for the predicted Jewish Messiah: “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line he will do what is just and right in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:15—626BC)
Jesus came from the genealogy, from the family tree of King David. The hewn branch at Christ’s foot, also, symbolizes another name in the Old Testament for the coming Messiah: “a Root of Jesse,” the father of David. “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.” Isaiah 11:10—c. 700 BC. The metaphor is the Messiah will come from a seemingly dead stump.
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse from his roots a branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1) Jesse Tree on door to Beauvais Cathedral in Beauvais, France
Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, in Romans 15:12 reiterates in c. 60AD what Isaiah said: “Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse’ will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations in him the Gentiles will hope.’” Jesus identifies Himself with the line of Jesse and his son David: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.” Rev 22:16 KJV
Jesse Tree—St. Denis, Paris, 1100’s
In the 11th century The Jesse Tree began to appear. The Jesse Tree is a tree showing the genealogy of Jesus. It starts with Jesse as its root and goes through all the male ancestors ascending through the branches to Jesus of Nazareth. The Medieval Jesse Tree is the origin of our “family tree” method of chronicling our own ancestors. As the idea caught on, the Jesse Tree was carved in wood, made into stained glass windows, illustrated in psalters, on walls and ceilings of churches and in stone carvings around the door of cathedrals.
Michelangelo, master of sculpting and painting, knew about the Jesse Tree in art, knew the Bible well and studied it thoroughly in order to be able to put such a subtle, arcane reference to Jesus’ genealogy in the Pieta and to place Biblical references in all of his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. When he was 33 in 1508, he started work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Cleverly hid self-portrait of Michelangelo on the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgment section (over altar) in the Sistine Chapel.
Notice this artist (below) has painted the face of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on his back to replicate Michelangelo’s own painting of himself on the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew.
Michelangelo was a dedicated Christian and imbued his sculptures and his paintings with an intelligent, artistic and reverent mind. He said of his talent: “Many believe—and I believe—that I have been designated for this work by God. In spite of my old age (he lived to be 89), I do not want to give it up I work out of love for God and I put all my hope in Him.” At Jesus’ death, as immortalized in the Pieta, the stump still does not have a sprout, but after the Resurrection, the seemingly dead Root of Jesse, Branch of David sprouted, grew, flourished, budded, blossomed and is still 2,000 years later bearing fruit.—Sandra Sweeny Silver
What is a “Pietà”?
In Christian art, a Pietàis any portrayal (particularly, a sculptural depiction) of the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son, Jesus. According to the bible, Jesus was crucified for claiming to be the son of God. Though Mary embracing her dead son is not explicitly mentioned in the holy book, the scene has proven a popular subject among artists for centuries, after German sculptors introduced wooden Vesperbild(a term that translates to “image of the vespers”) figurines to Northern Europe during the Middle Ages.
By 1400, the tradition had reached Italy, where Renaissance artists adapted it as marble sculpture&mdashand Michelangelo made his mark with his unprecedented rendition.
The Pieta (1498-1499) by Michelangelo is a marble sculpture in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the first of a number of works of the same theme by the artist. The statue was commissioned by the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who was a representative in Rome. The statue was made for the cardinal's funeral monument, but was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right as one enters the basilica, in the 18th century.
This famous work of art depicts the body of Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. The theme is of Northen origin, popular in France but not yet in Italy. Michelangelo's interpretation of the Pieta is unique to the precedents. It is an important work as it balances the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism. The statue is one of the most highly finished works by Michelangelo.
In less than two years Michelangelo carved from a single slab of marble, one of the most magnificent sculptures ever created. His interpretation of the Pieta was far different than those previously created by other artists. Michelangelo decided to create a youthful, serene and celestial Virgin Mary instead of a broken hearted and somewhat older woman.
In the Pieta, Michelangelo approached a subject which until then had been given form mostly north of the Alps, where the portrayal of pain had always been connected with the idea of redemption: it was called the "Vesperbild" and represented the seated Madonna holding Christ's body in her arms. But now the twenty-three year-old artist presents us with an image of the Madonna with Christ's body never attempted before. Her face is youthful, yet beyond time her head leans only slightly over the lifeless body of her son lying in her lap.
"The body of the dead Christ exhibits the very perfection of research in every muscle, vein, and nerve. No corpse could more completely resemble the dead than does this. There is a most exquisite expression in the countenance. The veins and pulses, moreover, are indicated with so much exactitude, that one cannot but marvel how the hand of the artist should in a short time have produced such a divine work."
Condition of redemption
One must take these words of Vasari about the "divine beauty" of the work in the most literal sense, in order to understand the meaning of this composition. Michelangelo convinces both himself and us of the divine quality and the significance of these figures by means of earthly beauty, perfect by human standards and therefore divine. We are here face to face not only with pain as a condition of redemption, but rather with absolute beauty as one of its consequences.
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Michelangelo Buonarroti, a Renaissance artist, is one of the most famous and respected artists in history. I couldn’t run an Art History blog and not talk about any of his works. He had true artistic talent right from the start. One of his earliest and most well-known masterpieces, produced when he was just in his early twenties, is the Pietà.
Pietà, 1498-1500, Saint Peter’s, Vatican City, Rome
Pietà is a subject of Christian art depicting Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus after his crucifixion, often found in sculpture. (When Mary and Jesus are depicted with other figures surrounding them, the subject is called Lamentation, not Pietà.) The Pietà theme is very common throughout French and German art, especially during the Renaissance period. However, Michelangelo’s Pietà is by far one of the most famous ones.
Michelangelo produced this sculpture for the French cardinal Jean de Bilhères Lagraulas. The cardinal commissioned this statue to decorate the chapel in Old Saint Peter’s, where he was supposed to be buried. In Michelangelo’s version of the Pietà, he transformed marble into seemingly real fabric, flesh, and hair. Looking at the sculpture, one can “feel” the variety of different textures. His sculpture exudes naturalism and is a prime example of sculptures during the Renaissance. The luminosity and the polish on the marble can not be captured by a photo.
A controversy surrounding Michelangelo’s Pietà, since the day the sculpture has been unveiled, is Mary’s age. Critics have argued that she seems too young and youthful, even more so than her son. Michelangelo, in response, defends his work by explaining that Mary’s ageless beauty is a part of her purity and virginity. What I also find interesting in this sculpture is how Christ seems more to have drifted off into a peaceful sleep than to have died. His wounds are barely visible.
This is absolutely one of my favorite sculptures. It is very well done, and not just because it was created by one of the most famous artists in history. I am completely blown away by this Michelangelo’s rendition of the Pietà because I think that it captures naturalism and emotion so well. In the sculpture, the folds in Mary’s seem so lifelike and the way that the weight of Jesus’ dead body hangs seems so realistic as well. Through this sculpture, Michelangelo also captures the true grief that a mother feels holding her dead son and the love that a mother has for her child.