Daniel Jepsen: The Two Pietàs, part 1

In June of 1496 a 21-year-old sculptor arrived in Rome and within a month received a commission: a statue of the Roman wine god Bacchus, for Cardinal Raffaele Riario. However, the work was rejected by the cardinal, and the young sculptor began to look for another commission.

Soon the French ambassador to the Holy See, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, commissioned him to carve a Pietà, a sculpture showing the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus [pieta = pity]. The piece was finished within two years, and was soon to be regarded as one of the world’s great masterpieces, “a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture”. Thus, by the time he was 24, the name of Michelangelo was in the forefront of European art.

Michelangelo sculpted the Pietà from a single block of Carrara marble, which he claimed was the most perfect block of marble he had ever worked with. He also claimed that he could “see” the sculpture, and needed only to remove the marble surrounding the scene.

I traveled to Rome earlier this year to gaze at the statue I had adored in pictures all my adult life; It seemed to me the most perfect of all sculptures. I could have spent the whole afternoon there, staring in wondrous silence. My patient daughter smiled at me as an adult daughter might smile at a long-widowed father who has fallen in love.

As a work of technical skill, the Pietà has no equal.  Contemporary opinion was summarized by Vasari:

“It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor, no matter how brilliant, ever to surpass the grace or design of this work, or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have reduced to perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Michelangelo put in to this work so much love and effort (something that he never did again), that he left his name written across the sash over Our Lady’s breast.”

Staring at the Pietà, I could not help but agree with Vasari. The scene looks less like stone than ivory. Or, if not that, stone in an almost liquid form. One senses it is almost too perfect. Or, rather, it is a perfection of an ideal, that is, a Platonic ideal.

For Plato, contemplation of the beautiful form led to a greater understanding of the essence of reality, and an ascent to the transcendent realm, the world beyond this world of matter.

As Catesby Leigh notes in a wonderful essay in First Things, much of Michelangelo’s early works,

…reflect Plato’s interpretation of eros in his Symposium, which Michelangelo must have encountered after entering the household of Lorenzo de Medici at age fifteen, when he was already recognized as a prodigy. Another member of Lorenzo’s household was the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, a renowned scholar and priest who, as one of the principal thinkers of Renaissance humanism, endeavored to harmonize Platonism with Christian belief. The young Michelangelo was imbued with the conviction that the contemplation of beautiful forms can serve as a step on a ladder that leads man out of the world of the flesh and into the realm of the spirit.

This is why, despite the subject matter, there is an idealized peace and harmony about the Roman Pietà. Indeed, this could be the only criticism of the piece. The quote from Vasari above even hints at this: “a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh”.  And the perfection of the human forms seem little touched by the manner of Jesus’ death. The wounds on his hands and feet are minuscule; the torso bears no marks from the whip, nor the brow from the crown of thorns; he could almost be sleeping or lying in calm repose. Mary, although looking down on her murdered son, nevertheless appears at peace. The two figures appear idealized despite such sorrow, reflecting the Neo-Platonic ideals of beauty on earth reflecting God’s beauty; the beautiful figures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are echoing the beauty of the Divine.

Michelangelo was much criticized for making Mary so lovely and young, instead of a 50-year-old peasant woman. But Michelangelo was not stiving for historical accuracy, but for the ideal, the transcendent, the eternal. Mary and Jesus represent, at this level, not murdered son and grieving older mother. Rather, they represent idealized man and woman, together, in their triangular unity, reflecting the image of the Triune God.

Catesby Leigh: “Michelangelo knew that man is the cosmic point of intersection between the realms of matter and spirit. The structure and proportions of the human body are integral to God’s supreme organic creation, and therefore the human figure is art’s supreme symbolic form.”

Michelangelo himself put it this way:

Every beauty which is seen here below by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come…
My eyes longing for beautiful things together with my soul longing for salvation have no other power to ascend to heaven than the contemplation of beautiful things.

This is the thought that guided his hammer and chisel: beauty, especially of the idealized human form, is a both a reflection of God’s beauty and a climbing pathway in which the person of perception may ascend, in some way, to heaven itself.

I gazed at the Pietà until the guards began closing St. Peter’s. My daughter asked if I wanted a picture with it. I declined. It seemed disrespectful. As we went out into the night, I thought I would never see another work of human hands that would move me the same way.

I was wrong.

I was soon to wonder at another Pieta, also from Michelangelo, but made at the end of his life; It is quite unlike the first. Its differences illustrate in eternal stone the spiritual journey of the great artist. But that is a story for tomorrow.

20 thoughts on “Daniel Jepsen: The Two Pietàs, part 1

  1. I’ve been left stunned by some secular movies, especially ones in which the Christ message is clear even if the producers/director/writer never intended it.

    I have encountered the same in several MLP fanfics as well. One spending 200,000 words redeeming the ponies’ Antichrist figure, another with a Harrowing of Hell scene to set a captive free and a goddess-figure ofering her immortal in trade for the resurrection of a beloved mortal.

    Some years ago on this blog (I think it was on the comment thread for “Selling Jesus by the Pound” about Christploitation), someone commented about a private revelation. Coming from a church whose preferred way to flake out is “Mary Channeling”, I am usually pretty skeptical about claims of Private Revelation, but this one was different, claiming that Christian artists/writers/moviemakers had dropped the ball so bad that God had “removed his mantle” from them and placed it on SECULAR artists/writers/moviemakers who would begin saying what God wanted said. (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshin…)


  2. JMJ over at Christian Monist has blogged extensively on how Neo-Platonic Dualism (“Spiritual Good! Physical Baaaaad! Archetypes Good! Reality Baaaaaad!”) has been a NEGATIVE influence upon Christian belief throughout history.


  3. “Michaelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this.”

    In college I had the opportunity to study in Germany for a year. At Christmas break and between semesters I was able to travel, and spent time in Italy. Having been captivated by photos of his statues and painting, one of my goals was to see as much of Michaelangelo’s work as I could, since I was in awe of it from my childhood. Already then there was a protective (?plexi-) glass shield between the Pietà and people, but it was breathtaking nonetheless. I also got to see the one which will be tomorrow’s subject. Michaelangelo lived a whole life between the two.



  4. Yeah, art doesn’t tend to move me as much as music, either, or…MOVIES. I’ve been left stunned by some secular movies, especially ones in which the Christ message is clear even if the producers/director/writer never intended it.

    And movies like “Lion,” where you see a glimpse of the REAL PEOPLE portrayed in the movie at the end of the film…yes, I’ve been brought to tears.


  5. Daniel, this is a wonderful post. Your experience reminds me a lot of Henry Nouwen’s spiritual re-awakening/epiphany while viewing Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (as shared in his book of the same name). I’m guessing you’ve read it, but if not…GET YOURSELF A COPY NOW! Much of it will resonate with you.


  6. Yep. I lead a men’s group on Saturday mornings and an adult Sunday school class. I learn more in preparing than I ever would if I didn’t lead, and I learn more than I can probably ever convey.


  7. My wife will be brought to tears on occasion when viewing a Monet or some other French impressionist. Visual art doesn’t have that emotional impact on me for the most part but music certainly does. The arts are a gift for our souls that take us out of ourselves. They spark peace, wonder, longing and other mental and emotional reactions, often simultaneously.


  8. Absolutely. I found that to be true when I was teaching. I learned more mathematics and history as a teacher than I ever would have as a student.


  9. It is also the only sculpture that he ever signed his name to. It was also damaged in 2013 by an insane man wielding a hammer. Her nose was never found but has since been replaced. The most beautiful I have seen. The veil of Christ in Naples is a close second.


  10. Didn’t know he was 24. Didn’t know Pieta = pity. Didn’t know there were two of them. Guess I didn’t know much of anything.


  11. Hello Daniel,
    As a young girl, I had the great privilege of seeing the Pieta at the 1964 World’s Fair (Vatican Pavilion) in New York City. I will never forget that experience.


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