Pieta, a masterpiece by Michelangelo

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

Pieta is probably the second best known statue of Michelangelo. Without reaching the absolute perfection of David, found in Florence, this sculpture is an impressive example of Renaissance art, by what is probably the best sculptor since antiquity. It represents Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus, after the descent from the cross, a theme that was not present in Italian and much of the Catholic world prior to this work. The Orthodox East to this day refrains from presenting (in painting, as it does not favor sculpture in general) the mourning of the Lord, preferring to emphasize the godly not the human dimension of Christ, as is the case with the typical icon of Pantokrator. The West, including the Protestant world, pays great attention to the Passion passage in the Gospel, portraying sufferance on the cross and psychological reactions of other Biblical characters to the torment of the Savior. Critics assume that such Northern traditions inspired Michelangelo Buonarroti in his famous sculpture.
Pieta was carved in two years from Carrara marble, which Michelangelo used to hand pick himself after meticulous searches. This was one of the famous funerary monuments made by Michelangelo, who spent 40 years of his life carving the Moses and the other statues in Pope Julius II’s tomb, with interruptions for other important commissions like the Sistine Chapel. Pieta was commissioned by an obscure French cardinal at the Vatican for his tomb, but since it is such an important work of art, was brought inside Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It is the only work signed by Michelangelo, who wrote his name in two words, Michel Agelo (with a missing N) to underline the relation of his name to Archangel Michael. The legend that Michalangelo signed Pieta later on because some were attributing it to others was formed, but it is more likely that this was done from the beginning as a form of advertisement. This was the first sculpture commissioned to the young Michelangelo in Rome, so he probably wanted to make a name for himself. The special banner on Mary’s chest, on which the signature sits is in fact an unusual and daring place to put a signature on a sacred figure, in contrast with the modesty attributed to Michelangelo by others. A possibly earlier sculpture attributed to Michelangelo is found in another church in Rome and represents John the Baptist.

Pieta is now found right next to the entrance of basilica St Peter, protected by a bulletproof glass. This is because it was once attacked by a mad man with a hammer. The bystanders didn’t prove more responsible than the deranged vandal, picking up marble pieces of the statue as souvenirs. That is why some parts, like the nose of the Virgin, were recreated from lower parts in the back of the robe, with enormous efforts from restorers.
Numerous copies have been made after this sculpture. A replica (shown above next to the original) is found even in the Vatican Museum, not far from the basilica. Others are found in Catholic churches throughout the world. Since Michelangelo, the theme has become popular in Catholic art and there are even variations of this theme, like the one in the cathedral of Malaga.

Pieta was the first work sculpted by Michelangelo in his own house rented in Rome, having around his first student. Until then, Michelangelo stayed in the palaces of his protectors and clients, the most famous of which was Lorenzo de Medici.

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