Taken March 7/09 at St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican.
La Pietà (1499) is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It is the first of a number of works of the same theme by the artist. The statue was commissioned for 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 on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. The theme is of Northern origin, popular by that time in France but not yet in Italy. Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pietà 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.
The structure is pyramidal, and the vertex coincides with Mary’s head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of Mary’s dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman’s lap. Much of Mary’s body is concealed by her monumental drapery, and the relationship of the figures appears quite natural.
The marks of the Crucifixion are limited to very small nail marks and an indication of the wound in Jesus’ side.
The Madonna is represented as being very young, and about this peculiarity there are different interpretations. One is that her youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity, as Michelangelo himself said to his biographer and fellow sculptor Ascanio Condivi: 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?
The process took less than two years. Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pieta was far different from those previously created by other artists—he decided to create a youthful, serene and celestial Virgin Mary instead of a broken-hearted and somewhat older woman.
The Pietà’s first home was the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, a Roman mausoleum near the south transept of St. Peter’s, which the Cardinal chose as his funerary chapel. The chapel was later demolished by Bramante during his rebuilding of the basilica. According to Giorgio Vasari, shortly after the installation of his Pietà Michelangelo overheard someone remark that it was the work of another sculptor, Cristoforo Solari. Michelangelo then carved MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made it) on the sash running across Mary’s breast. It was the only work he ever signed. He later regretted his outburst of pride and swore never to sign another work of his hands.1
In subsequent years the Pietà sustained much damage. Four fingers on Mary’s left hand, broken during a move, were restored in 1736 by Giuseppe Lirioni and scholars are divided as to whether the restorer took liberties to make the gesture more ‘rhetorical’. The most substantial damage occurred on May 21, 1972 (Pentecost Sunday) when a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ”.
After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter’s, just to the right of the entrance, between the Holy door and the altar of Saint Sebastian, and is now protected by a bullet-proof acrylic glass panel.
The sculpture was shipped to New York in 1964 in order to become the main draw for the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where it was viewed by millions.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)