To say St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is awe-inspiring would be an understatement. As if entering one of the world’s most impressive structures wasn’t enough, immediately to your right in the first side nave is Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, among the most famous works of art in the world.
It took the young Michelangelo (age 25 at completion) 2 years to carve it from a single block of Italian marble. His interpretation of the scene, which is the virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus after his crucifixion, is fascinating. First of all, he dodges a literal interpretation of the scene in order to show the purity and perfection of Mary and Jesus. Jesus is in pretty good shape considering he’s just been crucified, showing only wounds on his hands, feet and side. Mary is not an older woman, like she would have been if her son was 33. Instead, she is youthful and beautiful, a picture of perfection. The most impressive aspect to the “Pieta” is the way Michelangelo disguises Mary’s body with drapery. She is holding what would be a very heavy, lifeless body much larger than her own on her lap with great ease, yet we almost don’t even notice. Look carefully at the picture and try to image how enormous she would be based on the body structure suggested by the drape. She would be a giant! Michelangelo has manipulated her lap to be much larger than the rest of her body, so our focus is not on the awkwardness of Christ’s dead weight but rather the sadness and emotional weight of his death. It’s pure genius.
Another crazy thing about the “Pieta” is the Miss America-like sash across Mary’s chest. Michelangelo was a young and relatively unknown sculptor when he finished the Pieta. It was a big hit, and pretty soon he overheard that another more established artist was getting credit for the work. Enraged, he broke into the church and carved “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this” across Mary. Later, he came to regret this prideful act and never again signed a work.
The only thing not to like about the “Pieta” is that it’s hard to see because it’s set a ways back behind glass. (Trust me, taking a picture doesn’t really work because all you see is the flash.) It’s protected like this nowadays because 1972 a mentally disturbed man walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ.” He smashed it up pretty good, and many of the people standing around snatched up chunks of the marble that flew off as priceless souvenirs. Some pieces have never been found, the biggest being Mary’s nose, which was reconstructed from another piece.
Here’s a video snippet about the Pieta from the BBC. (the audio is not good, sorry about that). The video shows Carrera, a world famous deposit of white marble where Michelangelo got the stone. We’ll be able to see Carrera from the train on the way to the coast from Florence. It’s still a world famous quarry for sculptors around the world.