Date: around 1498
Location: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Dimensions: 5 ft x 8.5 ft
Michelangelo’s Pieta is a work of pure genius. It is undoubtedly the most famous Pieta ever depicted. It stands at 5 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide. Michelangelo’s main purpose of this sculpture was to show Jesus in a state of full humanity. This was because humans have a better understanding of His suffering when He is thought of as a man, instead of God. This image is not found in the bible, but it was a very common image of the day. Michelangelo was only around 24 years old when he sculpted this. The way that Mary’s hand is held out upwards towards the sky is a way of showing her son’s sacrifice for mankind.
Michelangelo studied very carefully human anatomy. The anatomy in this sculpture is actually anatomically impossible. He shows his mastery by making the sculpture look completely normal, when in reality the proportions aren’t scientific at all. In this sculpture, Mary is actually much bigger than Jesus. The magnificent drapery of Mary’s dress was put in place to hide the large size of her body in comparison to Jesus’. This was done partly because of the difficultly of having a woman holding the body of a grown man and still making it look natural. Michelangelo does a really great job of making this sculpture look completely natural, even though it is not.
Although this sculpture is about the suffering of Jesus, Mary is arguable the central figure. In other Pietas, she is older and displays agony. In Michelangelo’s work, Mary is young and has a solemn look on her face. She looks gentle and quiet. She knew that Jesus had to die for the world to be saved, so she seems at peace. Michelangelo meant to sculpt Jesus as asleep, not dead, for He would rise again (or awaken) in 3 days.
There are different explanations as to why Mary is such a young woman in this work of art. The first, simplest explanation is that Michelangelo viewed Mary as a very youthful, incorruptible figure. Her youth and beauty would have been seen as a gift from God for her faithfulness and her purity. The second, much more complicated explanation for why Mary was portrayed as such a young woman was because of Michelangelo’s understanding of the Trinity. There is a line in Dante’s divine comedy that calls Mary the virgin mother and the daughter of your son. Michelangelo took this line and applied it to the trinity, saying that Mary was not only the mother of Jesus, but Jesus, being God, was the Father of Mary. Mary’s youthfulness in this sculpture would then be seen as a sign of her daughterhood, with Jesus as her father. The final explanation is that the two figures represent two different points in time. Mary holding Jesus is representing Jesus’ birth. She is young because she is holding her child, the baby Jesus. Jesus is shown as a grown man as His mother holds Him. This would be to foreshadow what was to become of baby Jesus. In this explanation, Mary is looking into the future and what it holds for her son.
There is great meaning behind this piece of art, which is one of the reasons it is so famous. Michelangelo’s craftsmanship and intelligence remain unmatched. This remains one of his greatest works and certainly one of the most famous works, if not the most famous, in Rome.
Wilkin, D., Schultz, B., & Linduff K. (2001). Art Part, Art Present. Fourth Edition. Page 227.