The light of Michelangelo’s Pieta

Pietà, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1498 -1499, housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

by Elizabeth Lev

Michelangelo’s first masterpiece, the Pietà, was concocted out of the most unlikely ingredients: a rookie sculptor known for pagan subjects, a worldly pope whose name was synonymous with corruption, and subject matter not found in Scripture. Nonetheless, the graces of jubilee year 1500 contrived to produce one of the greatest religious works in history.

In 1497, Pope Alexander VI felt the acute need for conversion. He abandoned the nepotistic intrigues aiding his children and set about preparing Rome for the holy year, constructing special doors in St. Peter’s Basilica and leading his court into a collective state of penitential prayer. One of his closest collaborators, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, decided to decorate his burial chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica for the occasion with a statue of the Pietà.

The subject of Mary holding Jesus after his crucifixion and before burial had grown steadily in popularity in northern Europe after the Germans invented it in the 13th century. The French had adopted the subject for funerary monuments, naming it the Pitié.

Although there was no Gospel text to accompany it, the sculpture, usually carved in wood, was meant to show the final farewell of Mary to her Son on Good Friday, inciting “pity” by the exaggerated signs of suffering on the body of Christ: His limbs in rigor mortis, open wounds dripping thick drops of scarlet blood, and the crown of thorns still fastened to his head. Mary was portrayed as stiff and upright, her face mottled with grief, the whole ensemble forming a cruciform composition.

The cardinal’s commission fell to a 23-year-old Florentine, Michelangelo Buonarroti, who had gained notoriety in Rome after carving a putto that had been passed off to a Roman cardinal as an antique. His next work, an image of Bacchus, dared to mock the ancient canons of beauty by showing the god as a bleary-eyed, soft-bodied sot.

For 33 years, Mary poured affection into her Son.

Thanks to an art-loving visionary banker, Michelangelo was hired by Cardinal Bilhères-Lagraulas, and the contract was signedin 1497. Michelangelo would receive a single block of marble and a year to produce the work. But the hardest part was tackling the subject. No Florentine had ever sculpted a Pietà, and

Michelangelo Buonarroti,
by Daniele da Vo lterra, circa 1544. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

the few painted versions retained the uncomely stiffness of the Germans, though they attenuated the gruesomeness of the wounds. Nevertheless, the bold sculptor decided to forge his own iconography, changing our perception of the scene forever.

First, he chose a triangular composition, with Mary’s head forming its apex andher legs as the base. Then he draped the body of Christ within that shape, allowing Mary to appear as a living shroud for her Son. Michelangelo rejected the northern precedent of Jesus’ tortured body, choosing instead to use a classical sculpture as the model for Christ. The canons of elegant articulation and harmonious proportion that he had rejected in the Bacchus were employed in his Jesus, the wounds so lightly chiseled as to be barely noticeable.

To convey the lifelessness of Christ, Michelangelo added details observed from an actual lifeless body. Mary’s right hand supports Christ’s arm, but his shoulder crumples up under his ear and a fold of flesh droops over her fingers. Michelangelo made the leg muscles slump inside the flesh and carved distended veins in the hand hanging downward —God and man fused into one.

Michelangelo’s innovations allowed the viewer to be guided into the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion by Mary. Jesus’ beauty reminds us that Mary knew her Son was God from the moment of the Annunciation. For 33 years, Mary poured affection into her Son while aware that she was raising the Savior, but now her child has been tortured and killed, and she must place him in the dark tomb. How would we react? We look to Mary’s face to see how she copes with what appears to be the ultimate betrayal of her hope.

Pietà, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1498 -1499, housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.


Her face is surprisingly youthful and her expression remarkably serene. This depiction has numerous precedents in Florentine representations of the Annunciation, where Mary’s downcast eyes and calm expression evoke her response: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Michelangelo focuses on Mary, the woman who said yesto God and kept her word, from adolescence —when it meant explaining her mysterious pregnancy to her betrothed —until this moment, 33 years later, when she must accept the death of her Son. It is that heroic fiat, that active and steadfast yes to God, that Michelangelo captures in his Pietà. He does not portray a passive resignation; there is a terrible temptation to be overcome.

Michelangelo’s virtuosity is evidenced by the ripple of veil that hangs free over Mary’s forehead, but it also forms a ribbon of shadow that frames her face. The pleats of her bodice generate more pockets of darkness that intensify in the deep folds of her skirts. The work was originally placed in a shallow niche so it would appear that obscurity was encroaching from all sides, a darkness of despair ready to draw Our Lady into the Tenebrae of Good Friday. But she resists this temptation. How? Michelangelo carved Jesus, as many art historians have noted, using the smoothest possible planes and polishing the marble as he never would again. The result is a reflective surface that seems to emanate light.

We gaze upon Mary as she looks at the light which is Christ. Mary never loses sight of the light, even in the most terrible moments of darkness, and she guides us to followher example.

So amazing was this work to the pilgrims of jubilee year 1500 that Michelangelo ended up signing Mary’s sash when he found other artists receiving credit for it. But it was the unique vision of this maverick artist in pairing the pathos of divine beauty squandered with the inspirational faith of a mortal woman that would speak to centuries of beholders and ensure that the name Michelangelo would live on in glory.


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