A different perspective
A seminal work in Art History, and a sculpture which defined the career of one of the world’s greatest artists.
With modern technology and research continuously revealing new evidence, what we once understood about certain pieces is changing. Take what Michelangelo chooses to include in Pietà. Most of this detail appears in Christ’s face and torso but we cannot see this when we look at the sculpture from the front or below. Could this mean the Pietà was meant to be viewed from above? This is a theory I recently heard from Dr. Rocky Ruggiero.
This potentially means there are more, as yet unread, layers to Michelangelo’s masterpiece. What, if in addition to the Pietà, Michelangelo was referencing the event which followed: the Resurrection?
I posed this question during the V&A Academy’s Michelangelo and the Invention of Style at the start of this month. Now I put it to you. But before we get to my theory, let’s go back to the basics.
In Christian Art, the Lamentation of Christ is the term given to depictions of the mourning over Christ’s body after he had been removed from the cross. The Pietà is a variation of this. What makes it significant is that it removes Christ’s disciples and other witnesses, leaving only two key figures. It is a last moment shared between a mother and her son.
It’s no wonder then that the term ‘pietà’ is used, as this translates to ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’.
Michelangelo’s Pietà is, by no means, the first nor last. But it is the most famous.
With the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo’s future in Florence was uncertain. He didn’t get along well with Lorenzo’s eldest son and heir, Piero, and so he left the city he loved and travelled, first to Bologna and then to Rome.
In Rome, the French ambassador, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, commissioned Michelangelo to create a sculpted Pietà for him. It was to be his funeral monument in the Chapel of St. Petronilla, a Roman mausoleum near the south transept of the Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter.
In two years, Michelangelo had removed the five-foot, eight-inch sculpture, “trapped” inside a single block of white Carrara marble which he would later claim to be the most perfect block he had ever worked with.
When the old Constantinian Basilica was demolished by Bramante, the sculpture was moved. In the 18th century, it was returned to consecrated ground, though now in the first chapel on the north side of the new basilica, where it remains today.
THE CLASSICAL READING
Michelangelo merged the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism. Disproportionate sizing was common in Renaissance art and here Michelangelo appeared to be using it to fulfil two purposes: the first to keep the traditional pyramid structure, starting from Mary’s head and widening to the Rock of Golgotha upon which she sits; and the second to allow a 33-year-old man to be cradled in his mother’s lap (we’ll return to this bit later).
Neo-Platonists believe that earthly beauty echoed the beauty of the divine. Despite their suffering, Michelangelo reflected this through these two idealised figures. This is further enforced by the fact that Mary doesn’t actually touch her son’s body. From the swathes of material falling from her to the cloth beneath her right hand which holds Christ up – this is skin too sacred to touch.
The evidence of the Crucifixion was also tapered down. The wounds from the nails in Christ’s hands and feet, and the gash of the lance at his side, are all subtle. This is often interpreted as Michelangelo attempting to create a Pietà which illustrates the ‘heart’s image’. He focused on the bond between mother and child, rather than emphasising their torment.
A YOUTHFUL MOTHER
Though it wasn’t uncommon in images of the Passion, the youthfulness of Michelangelo’s Virgin Mary is a thing of constant speculation, not least by the artist’s contemporaries. In reply to Ascanio Condivi – one of Michelangelo’s biographers’ – the artist said:
“Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?”
Michelangelo may also have been influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy; it is said he was able to recite by heart. In Paradiso, Dante writes:
“O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son…”
The Virgin Mary was the daughter of God, the mother of Christ, and destined to be the wife of the Holy Spirit. As Christ was one third of the Holy Trinity, Mary was, in Dante’s interpretation, his daughter.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
On the third day after the Crucifixion, Christ was resurrected. This event, predicted in both the Old Testament and by Christ himself, was evidence that he had cleansed humanity of their sins and guaranteed the future of true believers. It was also a foreshadowing of the second coming – for if Christ could rise once, there was little doubt he would do so again.
So, what if we read the Pietà with this knowledge in mind? Let us begin with the Virgin Mary.
Rather than the distress that she is so often shown embodying, there is an acceptance about her.
Look at her left hand held aloft, palm up. Some see this as acknowledgement of what has happened. As if she is saying, “Look. See what you have done. See what my Son has given up for you.” Now examine this gesture with the Resurrection in mind. Does it not now read as an instruction to rise?
Her legs are spread wide. Unfeminine, some comment. A way for Michelangelo to get around having an adult man lying on the lap of his mother. But Christ sits between her legs. It was from here, from her, that he came forth as the body which now lies lifeless.
Their bodies are separated between layers of material covered in countless creases and folds. It shows a painstaking attention to detail on the part of the artist, but it also covers Christ’s body like the beginnings of the shroud in which he will be entombed. A shroud he will wear for two days before removing it upon his return on the third.
He was tied to a pillar and scourged, an act that would have mangled his skin and likely fractured his ribs. He was crowned in thorns, the sharp tips pressing into his head, blood dripping down his face and drying in his hair, each thorn digging deeper whenever he was whipped, fell, or shoved. His clothing was stripped to humiliate him. He was crucified, hands and feet pierced by iron nails that would have sent jolts of pain radiating through his limbs.
But you see none of this in Michelangelo’s Christ. He appears, instead, to be enjoying deep, peaceful sleep. That rest recalls paintings of him as a child, cradled in his mother’s lap without pain or burden. His skin is not mangled from the flagellation. There are no wounds in his head from the crown of thorns. The marks of his crucifixion and the lance that met his side, appear healed. Divine beauty? Or healed? Perhaps this is the Christ who will return on that all important third day.
This is Raphael’s Garvagh Madonna. Pay attention to Christ here, at his eyes, not wide with wonder or childlike glee, but with awareness. Knowing. He takes the red carnation from a young John the Baptist. A symbol of divine love. A symbol of his future passion. There is knowledge here of what is to come.
And what of this Madonna of the Meadow by Giovanni Bellini. Does this not call to mind the Pietà? The child Christ’s eyes closed, and limbs stretched out in the lap of his mother. And in the background, trees bare of their leaves. A raven symbolising death. A snake and a crane in battle, a reference to good versus evil. And hints of spring, promising a time of renewal. A resurrection still to come.
Five years after the Pietà, Michelangelo sculpted the Taddei Tondo: Christ trying to get away, looking over his shoulder at what it is he knows to be inevitable. But it’s not John the Baptist from which he moves away. It’s what he holds. A goldfinch – another symbol of the Passion.
So if the Passion (and the Resurrection) can be foreshadowed in so many other works of art, is it beyond the realm of reason that the Pietà does the same thing?
A QUESTION POSED
And now I turn to you.
You have seen Michelangelo’s masterpiece from several angles. Have viewed it through multiple lenses. And now you have heard my theory, that Michelangelo was foreshadowing what was yet to come.
Michelangelo broke away from the normal depiction of a Pietà. He did something new. But why?
Was it influenced by Neo-Platonism, and the education he received under Lorenzo de’ Medici?
Was he attempting to illustrate the ‘heart’s image’, focusing on the love between Mother and Son?
Was he alluding to the relationships of the figures to God?
Was he referencing the Resurrection?
Or was it something else entirely?