It is impossible for anybody to enter St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, without noticing the Pieta, one of the masterpieces of Michelangelo and perhaps the most poetic and marvellous sculpture ever created.
French Cardinal Jean de Billheres, serving the church in Rome, had a strong desire in his heart to be remembered long after his death and to fulfill the dream of his life, he commissioned Michelangelo to create a memorial for his tomb, that would capture the tragic moment of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after removal from the cross. It was one of the key moments in the life of the Virgin, known as the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which were the subject of Catholic devotional prayers. However, in the late fifteenth century it was depicted in artworks commonly in France and Germany than in Italy, where the portrayal of pain had always been connected with the idea of redemption and was known as Vesperbild or the evening picture.
When Michelangelo was commissioned on 27 August 1498 by Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas to create a life size sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding her son in her arms, he was relatively unknown in Rome. However, by that time, he carved a number of works in Florence with the prominent Medici family. In the 1490s, he left Florence and briefly visited Venice, Bologna and then to Rome, where he lived from 1496-1501.When he received the commission for the famous sculpture, Michelangelo had been living in Rome for just two years and had only completed two sculptures, a lost Cupid-Apollo and a Bacchus for the banker Jacopo Galli.
The agreement to make the Pietà was signed on 27 August 1498 and on November 18 the Cardinal wrote to the officials of the tiny republic-state of Lucca, located to the north of Rome in Tuscany, requesting them to help Michelangelo find the marble he would need for the statue. Michelangelo was keen to create the statue in Carrara marble, a white and blue stone, named after the region where it was mined and had been a favourite medium of the sculptors since the days of Ancient Rome. Michelangelo personally visited Carrara in the later part of November 1497 to procure the stone he needed and was stationed there till the end of December.
As soon as he secured a big block of Carrara marble of his choice, which he later claimed to be the most perfect block of marble that he had ever used, Michelangelo began to chisel it carefully and gradually transformed the large chunk of shapeless marble into flesh, alive in its very details. It was a special work of art even during the days of the Renaissance, because multi-figured sculptures were rare in those days. In Pieta, the two figures of Jesus and Virgin Mary were chiseled so carefully, as to appear in a unified composition which forms the shape of a pyramid.
The Pieta, created to be the funeral monument of Cardinal Jean de Billheres, was supposed to be placed in the Chapel of Santa Petronilla in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, though the unique sculpture was completed by Michelangelo in less than two years, the cardinal died on 6 August 1499, before its completion. As the unique sculpture was unveiled in St. Peter's Basilica for the Jubilee of 1500, everybody stared at it in fascination and admiration. Finally, after several shifting, it was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right, as one enters the basilica, in the 18th century.
The Pieta (pity in English) or the depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son Jesus after his death has been created by many artists in many different forms of paintings and sculptures by various artists. However, the Pieta created by Michelangelo stands out from all the rest. He interpreted Pieta from a completely different angle, as he decided to create a youthful, serene and celestial Virgin Mary instead of a broken hearted and somewhat older woman. In his Pieta, as the Virgin Mary holds the lifeless body of Jesus on her lap, her face emanates serenity, sweetness and a dignified grace of acceptance of the immense sorrow, combined with her faith in the Redeemer. It seems, as if Jesus is about to reawaken from a tranquil sleep and that after so much suffering and thorns, the rose of resurrection is about to be bloomed. The Pieta by Michelangelo conveys a sense of peace and tranquility and it gives us the feeling that the great sufferings of life and its pain can be mitigated and pacified.
However, it is said that Michelangelo had been criticized by some church observers for taking too much freedom to portray the Virgin Mary to look too young to have a son of 33 years old, as Jesus was believed to be at his death. Michelangelo defended his choice by saying that women who are pure in soul and body never grow old.
A careful study of Michelangelo’s Pieta reveals Mary’s head to be too small for her very large body. Actually, the artist was unable to impose the realistic proportion, as Mary had to cradle her adult son. To solve the problem, the artist had to take the poetic license to make her oversized. In fact, she appears to be large enough to tower over her son, if she stood up. He also carved out sheets of folded drapery to make her look larger.
The Pieta was the only artwork of Michelangelo to which he signed his name. He added it after overhearing a viewer to wrongly identify the work as being that of another artist, though he later regretted the vanity of this action.
Much later, it was loaned to the World’s Fair in the New York City in 1964. In 1972, a Hungarian-born mentally disturbed person, Laszlo Toth, leaped over the railings and attacked the Pieta with a hammer and with 12 blows he knocked off Mary’s left palm, snapped off the tip of her nose and damaged her cheek and left eye. It took several months to sort and identify all the fragments of marble dislodged by the cruel hammer and the entire restoration took around 10 months. Henceforth, the restored work is encased in a bulletproof acrylic glass panel.