By Iona Maccombie Smith | The BL

Laying in a solemn corner of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, is Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece, Pietà. It is a piece that displays both his extraordinary talent as well as his extreme level of empathy with the belief in God.

The theme of the ‘Pietà’ or ‘pity’ in English, depicting Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary after the crucifiction, has served as inspiration for countless artists throughout history. However, Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pietà is unprecedented in Italian sculpture, for both its content and its immaculate craftsmanship.

The other depictions of the Pietà largely concentrate on the image of a grieving and aged Virgin Mary, clinging to her mortally wounded son in agony, just moments after his removal from the cross.

Her pain is the artist’s message, the mournful suffering of a mother losing her only child.

But Michelangelo depicts a different circumstance, a new mental condition. Michelangelo’s Pieta stands out from all others.

The Work

‘From a large and inanimate stone, he created a living artwork, alive in its very details.’

In his interpretation the face of the Virgin is pure and youthful, almost serene in its lack of a mournful or painful expression. Her dress is delicate and expressive, it seems to flow with the softness of silk and is as exquisitely crafted as it is peaceful.

The arms of Christ hang loosely at his sides and his face carries a restful peace, giving the impression that he could instead be sleeping a dreamless sleep, rather than having just suffered a brutal death.

He could instead be sleeping a dreamless sleep, rather than having just suffered a brutal death. (Franco Cosimo Panini Editore)

The work was, and remains today, staggering in both design and execution. His friend Vasari was quoted to say that, “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.“<

The piece holds so much life within it that it is as if the Virgin Mary and Christ are laid there before all who see it in the flesh.

(Photo: Wikipedia CC BY 2.5)

So, what is it that makes Michelangelo’s Pietà so unique?

It cannot be denied that each depiction of the same theme has its own beauty, but it is widely acknowledged that Michelangelo’s Pietà is a cut above the rest; unique in its emotive content and outstanding as a masterpiece.

Many believe that the work carries a ‘divine beauty’. A beauty which perhaps lays in the message that the great master was trying to convey through the piece.

Coming back to the image of Mary. She is portrayed as a young, pretty and gentile being, supportive and solemn but not mournfully devastated. She seems to understand the significance of her son’s death and has made peace with this, indicated by her head being bowed in acceptance. She remains through it all, a vision of serene beauty.

(Photo: Wikipedia CC BY 2.5)

Her acceptance is of the acknowledgement that God did not send his son to earth to suffer in misery, pain and despair, for nothing in return. He came to be the salvation of all humanity, to be the sacrifice for all human sin, to provide hope for all living souls. All was as it should have been. No portrayal of the Pietà has ever displayed this emotion so potently or so plainly.

The illustration of the Virgin Mary appearing to be so youthful generated controversy at that time. Michelangelo denounced the conventional depiction in which the Virgin Mary should be an old woman and instead showed her in a stronger more youthful light. An older depiction of Mary would lend more readily to the illusion of a woman haggard from the death of her son. So showing her to be exuberant and at peace with his death was radical in its message.

Portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra (Photo: Public Domain)

To him, her youthful appearance felt more true to the doctrine of the immaculate conception and the Virgin’s incorruptible purity.

He is said to have 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?”

The Pietà, meaning Pity in english, is often misconstrued as a theme focused of the pity and shame surrounding the death of Jesus Christ. However, Michelangelo’s Pietà implies that the pity is in reference to that which God has for human sin. He took pity on us all, so much so that he would send his one son to die to release us of the repercussions of our sin.

Only a person with a strong belief in God, a deep understanding of the nature of life and an indisputable talent could create such a meaningful work.

It is just one of the world altering works created by the Renaissance master, made more amazing still, when considering he was just 24-years-old when it was finished.

The piece has moved millions of people since its completion in 1499, and will continue to do so far into the future.