In 1497, a young Michelangelo was commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres Lagraulas to create “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better”, for the cardinal’s future tomb in Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Few will argue that Michelangelo not only rose to the Cardinal’s challenge with the Pieta but also managed to surpass it.
Michelangelo sculpted the Pieta from a single block of Carrara marble, which he claimed was the most perfect block of marble he had ever worked with. He also claimed that he could “see” the sculpture within the marble itself and that it was his job to merely remove the excess in order to free the image inside. Michelangelo named his sculpture the Pieta. It depicts the dead body of Jesus after his crucifixion, draped across the Virgin Mary’s lap as she looks down upon his body in grief. Michelangelo was deeply religious and the Pieta is an expressive piece that was clearly inspired by his deep and abiding faith.
The concept of the Pieta was, in itself, not unique as there were many pietas in both German and French art. However, Michelangelo’s conceptualisation of the Pieta was unique for a number of reasons. He mixed Renaissance ideologies of classical beauty with naturalism but what set Michelangelo’s Pieta apart from all the others was that his was a multi-figured sculpture, considered a rarity in its day.
Table of Contents
- Description of the Sculpture
- What is so Special about Michelangelo's Pieta?
- How well was the Sculpture Received?
- How Long did the Pieta take to Produce?
- Why Did Michelangelo Sign Pieta, but No Other Sculpture?
- What Restoration Work has been Completed on Pieta?
- Where is Michelangelo's Pieta Today?
Description of the Sculpture
At five feet, eight inches tall, the figures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus appear in a unified composition. They are presented in the formation of a pyramid, with the vertex being the top of the Virgin Mary’s head. The pyramidal geometrical composition used for the Pieta was also favoured by other Renaissance artists of the period like Leonardo da Vinci. Immediately evident is the fact that the two figures are disproportionate in size to each other. In a sitting position, the Virgin Mary’s head is quite small while her torso, draped in dress and a cloak, appears larger.
Her legs are spread wide and swathed in the voluminous folds of material which form the substantive base upon which the leaner – and smaller – figure of the dead Jesus is cradled. Had she been standing, the Virgin Mary would have towered over Jesus’ body. Michelangelo deliberately made his Pieta disproportionate in size in order to address the physical challenges created by a woman having to cradle the body of a full-grown man. The use of disproportionate sizing was quite common in Renaissance art and did not detract from the work as a whole.
What is so Special about Michelangelo's Pieta?
What makes Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta so arresting is the presentation of the voluminous folds in the Virgin Mary’s clothing that envelope her from head to foot. The hood of her cloak is draped over the top of her head, just brushing her forehead. A portion of the cloak drapes over her right shoulder before the lower half of the cloak becomes entangled in the voluminous layers of her dress which pools at her feet. There is flow to the sea of cloth draped from knee to foot in countless creases and folds and the overall effect has the appearance of actual fabric because of its numerous curves, folds and recesses. In fact, it is Michelangelo’s painstaking attention to detail and the unique treatment of the hair, the skin and the fabric on each figure that give the Pieta texture and substance.
While it is said that Michelangelo's intricate treatment of the vestments worn by his subjects give the Pieta texture and substance, it is nevertheless his masterful ability to render emotion from the cold marble that give the sculpture its breath of life. There is such intimacy in the grief-stricken moment between the mother and her dead son. It is conveyed in the tenderness, profound sorrow and humility with which the Virgin Mary’s stares down at the body of Jesus draped across her lap. However, despite the torture Jesus had endured, the devastation to his body is minimal.
The wounds on his hands and feet, after being nailed to the cross, are small and he looks to be lying in peaceful repose. The Virgin’s right hand, as it supports Jesus’ body, does not come into direct contact with his flesh. It’s covered by the cloth from her cloak, signifying the sanctity of Christ’s body. The Virgin Mary, although consumed by her sorrow, nevertheless appears at peace. The two figures appear idealised despite such sorrow, reflecting the Neo-Platonic ideals of beauty on earth reflecting God’s beauty; that the beautiful figures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are echoing the beauty of the Divine.
How well was the Sculpture Received?
Michelangelo was criticized for depicting the Virgin Mary as youthful, far too young to be the mother of a grown son. He responded to his critics by stating that Mary was a virgin and that chaste women retained their beauty which is why the Virgin Mary would not have aged like other women. It has been said that Michelangelo was also an admirer of Dante’s Divine Commedia. Dante’s interpretation was that because Jesus was a part of the Holy Trinity, Mary was technically his daughter. Some say Michelangelo drew inspiration from Dante’s interpretation, thereby creating a beautiful and younger Mary, despite Mary having not only carried Jesus but also having been his child.
Both young Michelangelo and his incredible sculpture became famous almost immediately after the Pieta’s completion as word of his sculpture spread. Everyone flocked to see his masterpiece, especially other artists who wanted to examine his work up close, in search of the smallest of flaws. One of Michelangelo's biographers, Giorgio Vasari, summarised contemporary opinion of the Pieta stating, “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.” The Pieta came to be regarded as one of the world's greatest masterpieces of sculpture, “a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture”. In 1964, the Pieta was lent by the Vatican to the New York World’s Fair. People waited hours before finally being able to view the Pieta from a conveyor belt that passed by the sculpture. The Pieta was subsequently returned to the Vatican after the World’s Fair.
How Long did the Pieta take to Produce?
Sculpting the Pieta took less than two years. After its completion, the Pieta was displayed in the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, a Roman mausoleum, which Cardinal Lagraulas chose as his funerary chapel.
Why Did Michelangelo Sign Pieta, but No Other Sculpture?
Shortly after the Pieta was displayed, it was thought to be the work of another sculptor, prompting Michelangelo to impulsively “sign” his work by carving “MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T]” on the sash that runs diagonally across the Virgin Mary’s chest. The Pieta is the only work ever signed by Michelangelo and it is said that Michelangelo later regretted his impulsiveness, swearing never again to put his name to another one of his works.
What Restoration Work has been Completed on Pieta?
Throughout the ages, the Pieta has not only withstood the test of time but has become even more famous despite the damages the statue has endured. During a move in the 1700’s, four fingers on the Virgin Mary’s left hand were broken. They were subsequently restored by Giuseppe Lirioni in 1736 amid some criticism that he had taken a few liberties with the restoration. However, such damage to the sculpture seems inconsequential in comparison to the brutal violence it endured on May 21, 1972, when a mentally-disturbed geologist jumped the railing at St. Peter’s Basilica and attacked the Pieta with a geologist’s hammer. He managed to inflict twelve blows to the sculpture before he was finally stopped. In the aftermath, the Virgin Mary’s left arm had been severed at the elbow, an eyelid had been chipped, a piece of her nose was missing and one of her cheeks was damaged.
When a work of art is damaged, especially one as priceless as the Pieta, its exhibitors must give careful consideration to its fate. There were various proposals put forth to the Vatican. One proposal was to leave the sculpture as it was, with the damage speaking to the violence of our time. The second proposal was to repair the Pieta with visible seams, to serve as a reminder of its past and the third proposal was a seamless restoration. Ultimately, the seamless restoration was chosen. The restoration took ten months to complete in which bits and pieces of broken marble were painstakingly identified and subsequently affixed to the Pieta using invisible glue and marble powder. Eventually, the restoration was completed and the Pieta restored to its former glory after which it was returned to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Where is Michelangelo's Pieta Today?
Today, Michelangelo’s Pieta remains displayed in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, now protected by a bullet-proof glass panel. Michelangelo is considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time whose work as a sculptor, painter as well as poet of the Renaissance has influenced the development of Western art. The Pieta remains a testament and lasting legacy to Michelangelo’s masterful talents.
Pieta was one of many Michelangelo sculptures whose brilliance ensured it was not displayed in it's originally intended purpose.
Michelangelo again took a common religious theme and added his own creativity to it, rather than simply duplicating what had already gone before.
The Pieta sculpture took in influences from French art of that era and the piece itself was commissioned by French cardinal Jean de Billheres.
The balance of ages between Jesus and Mary is unusual in this sculpture and uses artistic license to achieve the precise finish that the artist desired.
Michelangelo was a thoughtful, considered artist who also held great confidence in his own ideas, which meant he was happy to go his own way on any established theme within his different sculptures and frescos.
Michelangelo's Pieta is a classic piece of Renaissance sculpture and instantly recognisable as being from the career of this Italian 15th century genius. We offer a full history of the piece in this website, with many images and photos of the original art work available. There are also links to where you can buy your own prints and posters of the classic sculpture to add to your own wall from recommended retailer, Art.com. You can read more about David Michelangelo scuptures here as well. There is also a gallery there covering Michelangelo's full career paintings and sculptures.
Tuscan-born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni has become a symbol of the rise of western art during the 15th century at the height of the Italian Renaissance which still inspires artists today with it's innovative and classic qualities. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were far beyond just painters, with diverse skills covering other fields such as sculpture, architecture and poetry. As well as Pieta, Michelangelo also created David too.
Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture was created entirely in Marble, which was also what he used to create David and several other key sculptures. Pieta took the artist many months to complete during the years of 1498-99. It measures 174 cm × 195 cm (68.5 in × 76.8 in) and is currently stored at St. Peter's Basilica, in Vatican City. The sculptor actually produced several different sculptures relating to the same topic, namely Florentine Pieta or The Deposition, the Rondanini Pieta and the Palestrina Pieta.
French cardinal Jean de Billheres commissioned this elaborate sculpture and was happy to choose Michelangelo for the job as his reputation was amongst the highest of any artist in the area. The artist was clearly delighted with the final piece and went to the length of signing it, which was the first and only time he did so.
Michelangelo starred during a time which most consider the finest within the whole history of Italian art, where the country dominated all of Europe with it's new ideas for painting and sculpture.
This development was driven by the fierce competition which existed between different families and provinces across the then-divided country. This website concentrates most of Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture, but much of the rest of his career is also covered in detail.
Italian artists have long since provided important contributions to the art world, with particular prominence in sculpture and painting. Recent artists have included Amedeo Modigliani and other creative painters, spread across different art movements.
The biggest influence from Italy remains within the Renaissance and Baroque periods where they led the world and other countries like France, Spain and Germany took many years to catch up.
Pieta Michelangelo sculpture is a common religious scene and can be found in the careers of many other artists around this time.
Pieta features Christ in the arms of mother Mary after his crucifixion and is obviously a crucial moment in the history of Christianity which uses this moment in time as a way of appreciating the sacrifices made by their great lord, leading to all the devotion which they show for him in a whole multitude of ways.
We can conclude from Michelangelo's career that Pieta is amongst his finest works, with sculpture just one aspect of his overall portfolio of creative output. His reputation has grown so far that many will visit Italy from far afield in order to just see his majestic works in person.
Sadly, many of these have become damaged over time but Pieta remains in great condition and is a major attraction within the Italian cultural scene.
Creation of Adam Painting
Creation of Adam is yet another impressive art work by Michelangelo, and you can see that above, with links to where you can buy a photographic print of it online, with great prices available.
There is also a fuller gallery covering the entire career of Michelangelo including both his paintings and photos of his best sculptures and internal frescos. The best known of these frescos is of course at the Sistine Chapel.
Pieta features a normal pyramid construction with Mary's head deliberately placed at the top and centre of the of the piece, with her expression perhaps being the main centerpiece of the sculpture, as she looks on at Christ.
Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture was somewhat different in approach to how other artists of that time had done it, both with sculptures and also paintings.
Michelangelo portrayed a much younger Mary than all others had done, and this was another way in which he differentiated his career from others of that time.