St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican is rich in masterpieces: the popes did not stint, inviting the best masters of their time to decorate it. It’s better to visit the Basilica with a guide, as part of an organized tour or with our Rome Itinerary for 1 day, which tells you how to get a full-fledged audio guide cheaper than in the Cathedral. Otherwise, you risk missing the lion's share of impressions: each square meter of the Basilica is full of symbolism, and each of the statues in it has its own, unusual and extremely interesting story. But even among this abundance of masterpieces Michelangelo's Pieta occupies a special place.
“You only say words, he says things,” - thoughtful contemporaries spoke of Michelangelo’s poetry. This simple formulation perfectly describes all of his sculptural, pictorial and architectural works: their form is perfect, and the content is inexhaustible. Such is Michelangelo’s drink: the chisel of the master managed to turn a block of cold Carrara marble into an immortal spiritualized image of incinerating loneliness. Loneliness, familiar only to the mother who lost her son ...
Pietà, translated from Italian, is “pity, mercy, sympathy, compassion”, painting in the visual arts is an iconographic (non-narrative) scene of lamentation of Christ by the Virgin Mary. Where did this scene come from if it is not mentioned in the canonical or even in the apocryphal Gospels?
Pieta Michelangelo - The Mourning of Christ by Virgin Mary
The fact is that in the German lands, starting from the XIV-XV centuries, worship of the 7 sorrows of the Virgin Mary was widespread (the numbers varied: there could be 5 in the number of Christ's wounds, and 9, and 15, and even 21 sorrows): at the words of Simeon about future suffering; when fleeing to Egypt; grief for the three days of the disappearance of Jesus during a trip to Jerusalem; during the Way of the Cross; at the Crucifixion; when removed from the Cross; when buried. Memorial Day of Bitterness and Sorrow of the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated to Good Friday. Much later, already in 1727, the Catholic Church approved the festival of the Seven Sorrows - September 15.
As a kind of symbol of sorrow and at the same time comfort for believers during religious processions and ceremonies on Good Friday, wooden or clay sculptures (German Vesperbilder) were used, which depict including the Virgin, holding the body of Jesus on her knees.
In the second half of the 15th century, plots of Gothic sculpture first attracted the attention of inquisitive masters of Lombardy and Ferrara, and later in rethought versions became a kind of “nourishment” for the creative thinking of artists and sculptors who worked throughout Italy. So, the paintings “Mourning of Christ” by Perugino (circa 1493-94) and “Pieta” by Botticelli (1495) are widely known, the central compositional solution of which practically corresponds to the Michelangelo’s drink created several years later.
History of creation
Without a doubt, Michelangelo was also familiar with the paintings of Perugino and Botticelli, considered at the end of the XV century. the best artists of Italy, and with many other canonical and non-canonical images of the mourning scene of Christ. However, the choice was not made in favor of a cruciform (as in Perugino), but of the conical composition of the drink (as in Botticelli, but without secondary figures).
Only in this way, according to Michelangelo, this scene would be able to find internal dynamics (which is especially noticeable in the folds of the clothes of the Virgin Mary and the gesture of her left hand) and combine the two figures into one.
The depth of the tragedy is “read” in the bowed head and the pose of the Mother of God
Cardinal Jean Billera de Lagrola, ambassador of the French king Charles VIII at the court of Pope Alexander VI Borgia, was the customer of the play. The sculptural group was to decorate the chapel of St. Petronilla (chapel of the king of France) in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. To entrust such a serious order to the 23-year-old sculptor was made possible through the mediation of Jacopo Galli, an influential Roman banker, friend and patron of Michelangelo.
The contract was signed on August 26, 1498, when marble was already selected, after which the sculptor went to Carrara as usual, sketches were created and assistants were hired. All work worth 450 gold ducats (at that time a fortune) was allocated a year; while Galli vouched that Michelangelo’s play would become "the most beautiful marble work in all of Rome."
The master kept his word: in 1499, the sculptural group, which has no equal to this day, was ready. Its dimensions are 174 × 195 × 69 cm. The pedestal for the play was made by Francesco Borromini in 1626.
The anatomical reality of Michelangelo’s play
According to Gothic and early Renaissance canons, the Mother of God in the scene of mourning was depicted either as a serene girl, or as an elderly matron, heartbroken. Michelangelo chose the image of a young woman whose external restraint can easily guess the bottomless depth of despair that gripped her and the horror of immense grief.
The lifetime biographer Michelangelo Ascanio Condivi, in the spirit of his time, believed that the master wanted to emphasize that "chastity, holiness and integrity can preserve youth." A number of modern scholars believe that Michelangelo sought in this way to convey his endless longing for an early dead mother.
But, most likely, he was guided by another consideration worthy of the person who founded the anatomical school at the monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence as early as 1492: sorrow on a smooth young face looks much more expressive than on a face dotted with wrinkles - from age, passions or from life's hardships.
And at the same time, the face of the Mother of God is not distorted from grief: the depth of the tragedy is conveyed much more by her bowed head, gestures, her pose itself - the pose of a woman who is still striving to protect her son, still pressing him to herself, but already realizing that in this world he is protected will not need.
The sculpture of Pieta is protected by bulletproof glass
Without the anatomical studies of Michelangelo, the body of Christ would not have been so believable. Its severity, the type and position of the limbs starting to stiffen, the face on which the suffered sufferings reflected (which is also emphasized by the play of chiaroscuro from the folds of the Virgin’s clothes) - all this shows that a person lying on his mother’s lap really has no signs of life.
Such virtuoso naturalism gives the sculpture additional dynamics of the movement of the mother to her son, an excessive load lying on her lap. At the same time, in order to maintain the balance of the composition, the master had to sacrifice the natural proportions of the bodies: the scientists calculated that if the figures were straightened, then Jesus would be 175 cm tall and Mary’s 204 cm tall.
How and where to see the sculpture
Michelangelo’s Pieta is still located in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, to the right of the entrance, and access to it is free. However, after the attack on the sculpture in 1972 by the vandal geologist Laszlo Thoth, who claimed to be the Savior, she was placed behind bulletproof glass.
Experts argue that such a solution is also a kind of vandalism: you can only see a drink from a fairly considerable distance and from almost one angle, which interferes with the full perception of the work.
The working hours of the cathedral: every day from 7:00 to 18:30. As usual, near the ingenious creation of Michelangelo, the only one he signed with his own hand (pay attention to the band on the chest of the Virgin), a crowd is crowded. That is why it is best to come to the cathedral in order to see a drink in the early morning.
In detail about the Cathedral itself, how to get to it and other masterpieces that you should definitely see in it, BlogoItaliano wrote in a separate article here.
Popular articles about the Vatican:
- The most interesting excursions in the Vatican
- Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums: Things to Know
- Tickets to the Vatican: how to buy and visit all the most interesting
- St. Peter's Square in Rome: history and features