Michelangelo, Pietà

Michelangelo, Pietà, marble, 1498–1500 (Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome)

The Pietà was a popular subject among northern European artists. It means “Pity” or “Compassion,” and represents Mary sorrowfully contemplating the dead body of her son which she holds on her lap. This sculpture was commissioned by a French Cardinal living in Rome.

Look closely and see how Michelangelo made marble seem like flesh, and look at those complicated folds of drapery. It is important here to remember how sculpture is made. It was a messy, rather loud process (which is one of the reasons that Leonardo claimed that painting was superior to sculpture!). Just like painters often mixed their own paint, Michelangelo forged many of his own tools, and often participated in the quarrying of his marble — a dangerous job.

When we look at the extraordinary representation of the human body here we remember that Michelangelo, like Leonardo before him, had dissected cadavers to understand how the body worked.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in Saint Peter’s Basilica, standing in front of Michelangelo’s “Pietà.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] I feel very lucky because on this rainy Monday morning, we’re the only ones.

Dr. Zucker: [0:15] It actually looks quite small…

Dr. Harris: [0:17] It does.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] …in relationship to the chapel that holds it but also especially in relationship to Saint Peter’s, which is so vast.

Dr. Harris: [0:24] Of course, this sculpture was made for a cardinal, but then it was placed in the old Saint Peter’s, which was significantly smaller than this one. It would have had a different relationship to the architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] What I’m finding interesting is, despite the fact that it’s relatively small and probably about 20 feet away from us, it’s still a really intimate image. There really is this extraordinary relationship that Michelangelo has constructed between the body of the dead Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary, who holds him on her lap.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] Mary looks very young and beautiful, but her body and her lap is enlarged to carry the body of her dead son. The realism of that dead body, of its weight. One of the most beautiful passages, I think, of the sculpture is the way that she holds up his right arm and pulls up that flesh a little bit.

[1:18] You really feel, first of all, that the marble is transformed by Michelangelo into flesh, but also the weight of that body, and through that weight, the loss of life that’s so palpable for Mary.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] It’s the complete lack of resistance that his body offers and the exertion that she has to extend in order to hold it, and that contrast makes for the viewer, I think, in a very physical experience looking at the sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [1:42] His body looks so much like the body of a real young man, the rib cage and the abdominal muscles.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] Yet it’s also idealized in the way in which there’s this beautiful turn of his body across her lap. For Mary as well, there’s this interesting contradiction in her sweetness and the beauty, but also the strength and the scale that’s necessary for her to easily hold him. Look how deeply carved that marble is.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] The drapery.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] This real love of the turn of the stone, creating this very vivid sense of alternation really, of light and shadow, of complexity, of surface against the broad, pure surfaces of Christ’s legs, of his torso, of his arm.

Dr. Harris: [2:24] Mary tilts her head forward and looks down at him. His head is thrown back, so there’s a alternation between those two necks for me.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] His neck is exposed to us, incredibly vulnerable. Christ’s foot hangs in mid-air. Mary, her left hand is open and pointing delicately forward, as if she’s still trying to comprehend his death.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] I think there’s also a way of presenting Christ’s body to the viewer, saying “this is the path to salvation. This is God’s sacrifice for mankind. My sacrifice of my son that makes possible your redemption.”

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] There is a rhythm that points to that hand. The drape and the knee point up towards Christ’s knees, which in turn create a rhythmic bridge to her hand, and to that sense of wondering.

[3:14] This is very clearly an image that’s meant to be contemplated, and the pain and the suffering that Christ has endured…

Dr. Harris: [3:21] Mary’s enduring.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] …that Mary is enduring is meant to be contemplated as a pathway.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] They’re polishing the floor.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] OK, let’s move on.

[3:29] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Michelangelo, Pietà," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2015, accessed July 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/michelangelo-pieta/.