Shortly after 23-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti arrived in Rome in 1497, he was approached by French Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas for a special task. Cardinal Bilhères wanted an extraordinary sculpture made for his mausoleum in the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, the chapel for the King of France in St. Peter’s Basilica, and he wanted the very young and very talented Michelangelo to create it for him. Michelangelo accepted the commission and promised to create “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better” (Jansen, 459). After returning from a short trip to Carrara, Italy, in 1498 to secure the best marble he could find, Michelangelo began working on the masterpiece now known as Michelangelo’s Pieta.
A Pieta is a style of artistic expression that depicts the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after He has been removed from the cross, the most common form being sculpture or carving. Michelangelo’s Pieta is made of Carrara marble and sculpted in such a manner as to make it appear smooth and fluid with arrested motion. His version of the Pieta remains one of the most impressive interpretations of the first moments after Christ has been removed from the cross because of how much it diverges from the typical style and because of how much emotion he was able to capture in a scene that appears so serene. Even though his rendition of the Pieta deviates from the typical depiction of the scene, he does hold true to the basic theme of Mary cradling Jesus in her lap. This sculpture shows an adult Christ laying lifeless across His young mother’s lap as she mourns His death. Mary’s face is “serene and peaceful” (Ross) as she holds her son, who has just been removed from the cross. The wounds in His hands, feet and side are visible, but only just so. As with the rest of the details of his Pieta, the restrained inclusion of the crucifixion wounds was innovative in the art of creating Pietas.
When Pietas were first developed in Germany at the end of the 13th century they were typically made to show the pain and agony of Christ’s death as well as the sorrow of His mother, Mary (Ross). Michelangelo’s Pieta, while holding true to the basic layout of a Pieta, was a new and innovative way to show the aftermath of the death of Christ. Aside from this being the first Italian Pieta, Michelangelo chose to use a classical representation of Mary by making her youthful instead of the typical middle-aged woman that she really was and he chose to show peace on her face instead of the usual sorrow and grief. The difference of how Michelangelo chose to create his Pieta is glaringly noticeable when placed next to a Pieta that has been made in the typical fashion, such as the Rottgen Pieta.
The Rottgen Pieta was created between 1300-1325 by an unknown German artist. It is 35 inches tall and is made of wood that has been painted. Aside from being made in a different century, in a different country and out of different materials, the concept behind the two pieces is the same: the Virgin Mary holding a deceased Christ moments after He has been taken down from the cross. Both pieces show Mary holding Christ in her lap, but that is where the similarities end. The Rottgen Pieta followed the traditional Gothic fashion of creating religious works that were full of anguish and somewhat gory. In Michelangelo’s rendition, he chose to replace the anguish with peace and the gore with “restrained emotional expression” (Ross) that was becoming popular during the Italian Renaissance. Another very noticeable difference is the age of Mary. Michelangelo followed the Classical tradition of making people youthful and attractive while the German artist made his Mary appear old, wrought with grief and obviously suffering. The German Mary is also thin and frail while Michelangelo’s Mary is healthy, busty and in the prime of youth.
Aside from the differences in how Mary is portrayed, Christ is very different as well. Michelangelo’s Christ, while deceased, does not show the anguish and suffering that He was sure to have gone through prior to His death. The wounds he received in His hands, feet and sides are present, but they are not as obvious and gory as the Gothic statue portrays. The Gothic statue shows Christ’s wounds in a manner to gain the viewer’s attention and be fully aware of the pain and suffering these profusely bleeding wounds would have caused.
Along with the wounds showing that Christ suffered before and during His death, the German Pieta depicts Christ as thin and weak. Surely this means He had suffered much before His death. But Michelangelo chose not to convey that message. He chose to create his Christ as strong and healthy, someone who was heroic and someone who was at peace with His death.
Another unique feature of this piece is Mary’s sash. In a move art historians are still trying to understand, Michelangelo brazenly signed his work on the sash that runs between Mary’s breasts. Was it a moment of egotistic zeal? The result of too much wine? A badly calculated coherent decision? Or was there some other reason Michelangelo inscribed his name in so awkward a place? We my never know the answer, but it still stands that Michelangelo brazenly inscribed the words “Michaelangelus Bonarotus Florent Faciebat” across the Mother of God’s chest. Until the end of time, or the statue gets destroyed, all humanity will know: Michelangelo Buonarroti Made This.
Because of the way in which he chose to design his Pieta and the message he chose to convey with it, Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of the most important pieces of art in the world. The features that make Michelangelo’s Pieta so beautiful and captivating are the same things that make it so unique and important. Michelangelo’s Pieta is serene and beautiful instead of anguished and gory as Pietas has been up until this point. His Pieta adheres to the principles of naturalism so well that when combined with his careful attention to detail, it achieves a level of realism that hadn’t been seen for centuries, regardless of his accuracy of scale. Perhaps in part because it was the first Italian Pieta ever made and partly because of the peace that it conveys, Michelangelo’s Pieta has been moved from its original resting place in a side chapel to a central place in St. Peter’s Basilica, a major pilgrimage destination where people of all walks of life can see it and be inspired by it. The message conveyed in Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of peace and hope. By choosing to show Christ’s death as one of peace and quietude, Michelangelo is sending the message that death is not the end, that death does not need to be a heart-rending experience for us or the people we love. Michelangelo touched the hearts of the people of his time with his message and continues to touch people today. His Pieta has become one of the most well-known pieces of art in the world and will forever be one of the most beloved pieces in the Christian world.
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