At Easter time, all eyes tend to point to Rome, where the Catholic Church becomes the leader of the Easter celebrations and the Pope makes his traditional Easter Sunday address from the Vatican.
Inside St Peter’s Basilica is a sculpture which most people will be familiar with from pictures in magazines and papers – Michelangelo’s Pièta, which depicts the moment Christ is taken down from the cross and his lifeless body is placed in his mother’s arms.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) sculpted the figure at the age of 24 – and it was intended to be the most beautiful sculpture in Rome. He was working at a time when classical sculpture harking back to the Greeks and Romans was the gold standard. Yet the figures of Mary and Christ appear modern – Christ is not of superhero proportions and Mary could be any mother grieving for her lost son.
What is spectacular about the statue is the fact that it is carved in marble – a hard material – and yet the softness of Christ’s form, the delicacy of the limbs, the gentle inclination of the Virgin’s head and the fall of the draperies make the material appear malleable and fluid. The flesh is so plumped and the draperies so intricate and delicate, it is hard to believe they are marble.
The triangular shape of the statue was carved from a circular block – artists like Michelangelo would often visit the quarry to choose their own blocks of marble to work with, because they knew how the great slabs could be cut and how the natural veins in marble could be utilised in a sculpture.
The statue was a great success and established Michelangelo’s career and legacy as an artist and sculptor. It is one of the most recognised and revered works of art in the world.
Pièta mean “pity” but the word is used to describe any statue of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ after he is cut down from the cross. Normally a mother would hold her son in her arms after birth – the Virgin holds her son after his death. The beauty of the statue compared with the awfulness of its subject is what makes it such a compelling image – “a terrible beauty”, as WB Yeats wrote in his poem Easter, 1916 (about the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland).
It is also interesting to note that the figure of Mary appears larger – or at least broader – than the Christ figure, whose hands seem small and delicate compared with those of his mother. Because of the perspective of the Christ figure, seen from the side with his head falling backwards, he appears smaller – Christ fits within the circumference of his mother’s frame and Mary’s legs support his frame, almost as though she is sitting on a birthing stool. Yet the scene is a dreadful reversal of childbirth – and is uncompromising: the figures meet us face on, there is no hiding the terribleness of the scene. Mary presents her dead son to us – we either have to look, or look away.
Michelangelo carved his name on the sash across Mary’s chest as an afterthought – not through arrogance, but because when the statue first went on display, onlookers attributed it to another artist.
One criticism of the statue by some was that Michelangelo had made the face of the Virgin too young – Christ was 33 when he was crucified. Vasari in Lives of the Artists claims this might have been because she had remained a virgin – and therefore innocent and “spotless” – for so long.
But perhaps Michelangelo simply saw a mother holding her dead son and remembering holding him as a newborn in her arms.
Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to decide.
Featured Images: Michelangelo Pièta FreeImages.com/elvis santana
Article ©Angela Meredith 2016
About the author: Angela Meredith is an NUJ freelance journalist and writer. She has a joint degree in Literature and the History of Art and also has an MA in Literature. She has written about visual art as a professional contributor to the website Artshub and also covers health, travel and consumer legal content for leading digital publishers.
Her novel ROME ALONE is available for free download at Kindle Unlimited (£1.99 to buy).