10 April 2020
02 April 2021
by Michelangelo Buonarrotti, 1498-99, Italy, Renaissance
When one thinks of the Christian Holy Day of Good Friday, the image of a crucified Jesus Christ comes to mind whether it be on the cross, the descent from the cross, or as in this tender scene of Mary cradling the corpse of her Son after His crucifixion and descent from the cross.
Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of the Pieta captures her beauty and sadness–and caused controversy at the time he sculpted it because she appears younger than her Son!
The first of several marble sculptures Michelangelo did of the Pieta (means pity) is by far the most famous. It is his only signed sculpture and catapulted the artist into a long and renowned career as sculptor (his preference) and painter (i.e. Sistine Chapel).
At a size of 5’9″ x 6’5″, Michelangelo provides us with an interesting visual impact. In order for Mary to be able to hold her Son, a full-size man, laying on her lap, the sculptor provided her with longer thighs. If Mary were to stand up, she would be over 7′ tall!
The first of his many marble sculptures, Michelangelo was fairly unknown when his first Pieta was created. When it was originally presented to the public, there was a question as to the identity of the sculptor. This did not sit well with Michelangelo. That night, he secretly carved his full given name, “Michelangelo Buonarrotti” across the sash on Mary’s chest. No one ever questioned the artist of any of his work again!
What does it look like from the Back?
Based on a lifetime of pouring through art history picture books, I can say with authority that art is always shown from its best vantage point, typically the view from the front. Because I love sculpture and 3-dimensional work, I always ask “What does it look like from the back?” So it was with this Pieta.
On my first trip to Rome, my mission while visiting the Vatican Museums was to uncover the “mystery” of the appearance of the back of the sculpture. Did Michelangelo create it flat with the intention of putting it against a wall? Or was it meant to walk around and enjoy it from all angles? One cannot tell from viewing the real thing in St. Peter’s; it is behind glass and set in such a way that one can hardly see the front, let alone the back.
View from the back
Upon inquiry of our guide regarding my search, she directed me to a small, crowded, out-of-the-way bookstore near St. Peter’s. It was there that I not only discovered the answer to my question, but also the most-cherished purchase I ever made in all of my travels!
Yes! Michelangelo intended that she be enjoyed from all sides; the back is complete–and worth the view!
My most-cherished purchase was a gorgeous portfolio of professional, black and white photographs that included not only one of the back, but at least a dozen large (14″ x 17″) prints. I have enjoyed sharing them with students over the years on “Michelangelo Discovery Day” sessions. My six favorites have been framed and are hanging in my home so I can enjoy them every day! Another one hangs in the home of a beloved, long-time friend.
View from the Top
One of the most spectacular photographs is one that provides a view of the Pieta from the top! The details visible from this vantage point are breathtaking.
It reveals the perspective behind the depth of Mary’s lap, the length of her thighs, and the idea that she would be 7′ tall if she stood up!
This sculpture is meaningful to me as I’ve not only seen it in Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican) but also as a teenager at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (the sculpture’s only trip outside of Italy)! Interestingly, the photos I purchased were taken during the time it was at the World’s Fair, which makes them all the more meaningful to me.
TRAVELER TIP: For those who can’t get to Rome, Italy, but can make it to St. Paul, Minnesota, USA there is an excellent life-size replica in the magnificent Neo-Gothic Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul—for viewing after the shutdown passes and the building is again open to the public, of course!
One advantage of viewing the one in St. Paul is that one can get a lot closer to it than the one in the Vatican–and, depending on where they have it placed, one may also get a view the back (which is different, by the way…).
Website for scheduling a tour and visiting the site of the reproduction in St. Paul, MN USA – www.cathedralsaintpaul.org
Website for visiting the original in Vatican City, [Rome], Italy – www.stpetersbasilica.info/touristinfo.htm
Honor our Father on Father’s Day blog: “Creation of Man” by Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, Vatican City, Italy
Art and Travel: Michelangelo comes to Minnesota