St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo's Pietà is perhaps the most famous work of art in Saint Peter’s. Made of white Carrara marble, it was created by the great artist when he was only 23.
Its drama is apparent from the very first glance. The Madonna and the dead Christ, the folds of the clothes, all are sculpted with such artistry as to seem real, airy and palpable. More than anything, it’s the harmony of the figures that strikes the eye: Christ seems to be weightless instead of coming from a block of marble.
The face of the madonna is covered in silent pain and has a particular characteristic: it’s the face of a very young woman and yet, when Jesus died,
Maria would have been at least 49 years old! Michelangelo purposely wanted to accentuate her youth, to represent eternal life. The statue is the story, perhaps a premonition, of the vision the Madonna had of the death of Christ at the moment of the annunciation.
She holds her dead son in her lap as if he were still her young, sleeping child: in this way she represents both mother and virgin. It’s almost as though the statue lives in two eras simultaneously.
What is the meaning of Pieta by Michelangelo?
Michelangelo wanted to illustrate the theme of mourning, of sorrow, but sorrow is a consequence and is shown by the resigned gesture of the Madonna’s hand: it seems to say that the premonition of Christ’s death has, unfortunately, come to pass. The statue thus becomes a voyage in time from the past to the future, without stopping in the present.
The composition is in the form of a pyramid: it reminds us of the triangle used to represent God, to specifically indicate that everything is part of the divine plan, which goes beyond human pain and compassion.
But the most realistic part of the scene—and perhaps the most dramatic because of it, is the arm of Christ, hanging inert, to show the complete abandonment of life that death brings. Michelangelo used the drama of this gesture to also bring movement and depth to the sculpture, to allow the light to slide off and guide our eyes to the folds of the cloth and Jesus’ emaciated body.
This is one of the most famous and most copied works in the story of art (from Caravaggio’s “Deposition” to Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat”).
Who damaged the Pieta?
Today, the only way to see the extraordinary masterpiece is through a slab of protective glass; it was placed there after an attack on the statue in 1972 by an unbalanced individual, an Hungarian named Laszlo Toth, who struck it with a hammer, damaging the face and hand of the Madonna.
The statue inevitably causes poignant astonishment, and it has another peculiarity: it’s the only work ever signed by Michelangelo.
The artist, famous for his touchy and argumentative temperament, found out that another artist was going around saying that he had created the work and, understandably, Michelangelo became livid with rage. So, without a second thought, he grabbed hammer and chisel and immediately signed his name at the level of the Madonna’s belt; from that moment on, there has never been any doubt whose creation it truly was.