Art You Should Know: Michelangelo’s Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta, 1498-1499

“… and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon’s prophesy to Mary when she presented the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke 2:35b (NIV)

Michelangelo Buonarroti carved his ‘Pieta’ from Carrara marble in 1498-1499, originally as a funeral monument for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres. It measures 1.74m by 1.95m and is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed.

Sculptured in the Renaissance style, which combined ideals of classical beauty with naturalism, a closer look reveals multiple departures from realism, all of which serve a symbolic purpose.

Michelangelo wished to show the mother of Jesus embracing her son for one last time, as though he were a child, but of course ran up against the difficulty presented by the relative sizes of a woman and a grown man. To get around this, the Virgin is sculptured with extensive flowing garments, which flow down over the base of the sculpture.

The face of Christ is peaceful, not contorted in agony as one would expect to see in a person who had died an excruciating death (I remember reading once that the term ‘excruciating’ has its origins if the Latin for ‘of the cross’, because crucifixion was such an agonising form of execution that it required its own word). This sense of serenity emphasises the bliss of divine union with God while downplaying the connection with death, which is further minimised by barely depicting the wounds left by the nails and the centurion’s sword.

Mary, too, appears much less distressed than a woman cradling her dead son might reasonably be expected to be, and also surprisingly youthful for a woman with an adult son. Again, her quiet sorrow reflects the peace which comes with faith, the ‘consolation of religion’, while her youthful appearance is based in Catholic teaching around her continued purity and virginity.

Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ is one of many sculptures and paintings to depict the Virgin Mary with her dead son. In more recent times the symbolism has also been adapted for use in war memorials, capturing the agony of the countless mothers who have lost sons (and daughters) on the battlefield.

The Pieta is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

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