Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Serene Beauty & Profound Sorrow: Michelangelo's Pietà

The Pietà
Image courtesy of: http://www.backtoclassics.com

Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.

The theme for Michelangelo's Pietà was not new; rather, it was borrowed from the Gothic iconography of Northern European countries beyond the Alps where images of Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus, her son, across her lap after his death and deposition from the cross, had been a popular one since the fourteenth century (the link between pain and suffering as conditions of redemption was referred to as “Vesperbild” or “Mercy”; of importance were that the wounds of the crucified Christ be made visible to the viewer in order to be contemplated). Though a common theme in countries such as France and Germany, it had not yet reached Italy before Michelangelo undertook its commission. (Indeed, the very word Pietà, is of itself an abbreviated form of “Maria meditietre sanctissima della pietà.”)  (Sources: moodbook.com, undated; eyeconart.net, undated; worldlingo.com, 2010)

Image courtesy of: http://www.backtoclassics.com/

Formally commissioned with a contract of 450 gold ducats on August 27th, 1498, from the young Michelangelo by the abbot of Saint Denis and Ambassador of the French king to Rome, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères de Lagraulas, the Pietà was begun six years after the discovery of the New World, in 1492, by Christopher Columbus. It was intended as the sculptural monument for the cardinal's own tomb, to be installed in the Chapel of the Kings of France in St. Peter's Basilica. (This Pietà in St. Peter's would be the first of four Pietàs undertaken by Michelangelo during his lifetime but the only one he actually completed.)

Carved from a single block of white Carrara marble it took the 24-year old Michelangelo less than two years to complete (1498-1499). According to the official agreement, the Pietà was to be the most beautiful sculpture in Rome, unsurpassed by any other living artist. The request did not daunt the young Michelangelo; upon its completion and installation in St. Peter's Basilica in Jubilee year 1500, the Pietà was declared not only the best work of any of Michelangelo's contemporaries but exceeded even the sculptures of the ancient Greeks and Romans - the standard against which all art was measured. (Sources: moodbook.com, undated; rome.info, 2009)

It is alleged that just days after its installation in St. Peter's Basilica, Michelangelo inadvertently overheard some visitors' stray comments that Michelangelo was too young to accomplish a sculpture of such beauty and that the work had been completed by another artist, Cristoforo Solari; outraged, that night, under the cover of darkness and out of pride, Michelangelo snuck back into the Basilica and etched an inscription by candlelight, in Latin, across the Virgin's sash: “Michael. Agelus. Bonarotus Florent Faciebat” (Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine, made this). It is also alleged that, having regretted the outburst of pride, Michelangelo vowed never to sign another work again; the Pietà remained the only work by the artist to ever bear his signature. (Source: eyeconart.net, undated)
Michelangelo's only signature, carved across the Virgin's sash:
 "Michael. Agelus. Bonarotus Florent Faciebat"

Other criticisms followed. Since it is estimated that the mother of Christ must have been between the ages of forty-five to fifty years of age at the time of her son's death, Michelangelo's Madonna was portrayed exceptionally youthful. In his own defense, Michelangelo answered his critics by saying that he did so deliberately, that the effects of age and time did not and could not have marred the features of this most pure and blessed of women: “Women who are pure in soul and body never grow old.” He also claimed that in portraying the Madonna's face, he thought of the face of his own beloved mother, who had died when Michelangelo was only five years of age. (Source & quote: saintpetersbasilica.org, undated)   

Detail of the Virgin's face

Detail of Christ's face
The two images above are courtesy of: http://employees.oneonta.edu/

Christ's face in death

Detail of Christ's hand
Image courtesy of: http://www.scottshephard.com/

Christ's hand
Image courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/

From “Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano
Photograph by Aurelio Amendola

On the morning of Pentecost Sunday, May 21st, 1972, a crazed tourist suddenly jumped the balustrade of the chapel where the Pietà stood and, with hammer hidden under his raincoat, struck the Pietà several times, all the while shouting, “I'm Jesus Christ!” Broken were the Madonna's left arm at the elbow (her fingers also broke off as her arm made contact with the floor), her nose, and three edges of her veil. Damage was sustained to her left eye's lid as well as to her neck and head; the Madonna was disfigured with multiple pieces of marble fragments strewn all about. Vatican officials, who used feather dusters to retrieve them, collected more than fifty shards of marble; later on, three more pieces were returned to the Vatican by tourists who took them as souvenirs. 
Painstaking restorations on the Pietà began immediately; Pope Paul VI, incredulous at the occurrence, pronounced, “...Satan is entered in the rooms of the holy buildings. He hides himself, he dissimulates, he seduces, divides, slanders. But it's him, ever him: the prince of darkness, the impoverished angel, the first and last cause of evil in the world.” (Quote courtesy of: darsham, youtube.com)
The perpetrator, a 33-year old demented Australian geologist of Hungarian origin by the name of Laszlo Toth, who proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, was not charged with the crime but was committed to a psychiatric institution for two years by a Roman court.

For safekeeping, the Pietà was put behind a panel of bulletproof glass after its restoration and reinstallation to prevent any future vandalism. (Sources: saintpetersbasilica.org, undated; guardian.co.uk, undated; guideto.com, undated)

Images courtesy of: http://saintpetersbasilica.org/

Image courtesy of: http://elayl.wordpress.com/

Image courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/

Late in 2010 in The Telegraph, a couple of articles filed from Rome appeared which claimed that the prototype for Michelangelo's Pietà - consisting of three figures: Christ, the Virgin and the small figure of Cupid (a reference to Greco-Roman paganism), whose head and wings had, at some point, broken off and gone missing -  had been discovered eight years ago. The terracotta model which stands roughly twelve inches in height and dates back to the late fifteenth century when Michelangelo was still a relatively unknown Florentine artist, was discovered in a box by an Italian art collector in an antique shop in northern Italy. 
After being subjected to extensive tests, it was concluded, by the American art historian Roy Doliner at a press conference, that it was indeed the model for the Pietà. It took the art restorer Loredana di Marzio  three years to restore the statue, which had been covered with nine layers of paint; incredibly, it had also been held together with strips of Scotch tape and carelessly mended with glue. 

The terracotta figurine believed to be Michelangelo's prototype for the Pietà
(As it appears after restoration)

Upon its discovery, the figurine had originally been attributed to another Renaissance artist, Andrea Bregno, a celebrated sculptor of the fifteenth century. Experts, however, are convinced that the model is Michelangelo's - based on references made to it in later paintings, its age, and the exquisite detailing of Christ's face, chest and abdomen which correspond to several sketches Michelangelo is known to have made for other works - who created it in order to secure the Pietà's commission from the wealthy Cardinal Jean de Bilhères. (Source: Squires, N., telegraph.co.uk, December 3, 2010) 

Video by EditionsArstella ~ courtesy of: http://www.youtube/


Video by smarthistoryvideos ~ courtesy of: http://www.youtube.com

Image courtesy of: http://employees.oneonta.edu/

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

Suggested readings:

Michelangelo: The Pietà and Other Masterpieces (1965), by Josef Vincent Lombardo: Pocket Books

The Sculpture of Michelangelo (1982), by Umberto Baldini, Michelangelo Buonarroti & Liberto Perugi: Rizzoli

Michelangelo: The Pietàs (1997), by Antonio Paolucci, Michelangelo Buonarroti & Aurelio Amendola: Skira

Pietà (1999), by Robert Hupka: Ignatius Press

Michelangelo's Mountain: The Quest for Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara (2005), by Eric Scigliano: Simon & Schuster

Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture (2009), by William E. Wallace: Universe

Michelangelo: A Tormented Life (2009), by Antonio Forcellino & Allan Cameron: Polity


  1. Great creation that depicts such a historical moment. There are many document translations available in historical accounts. Michelangelo was an inspired sculptor.

    1. Well said. Great art is always inspired; by its very nature it must be.

      Thank you for your comment & the link. Best regards,
      ₵. Ð.

  2. Thank you for collecting all the images of the Pieta AND for giving references (credits) to the sources. Michelangelo was truly a gifted man who gave his gifts back to the world, to generations. Having seen the Pieta in the 80s and 90s in St Peter's Basilica, your compilation of pictures and stories gave so much depth to the art, the artist!! Thank you.