Some works of art are so well known that the name itself brings up an image, and to my experience Michelangelo’s Pieta is a major member of that group. It attracts your immediate attention as you enter St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, lighted and serene in a chapel now know as the Chapel of the Pieta.
Michelangelo did not show suffering, as he wanted to call to mind not death but the resurrection.
The structure is pyramidal, and the vertex coincides with Mary’s head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of Mary’s dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman’s lap. Much of Mary’s body is concealed by her monumental drapery, and the relationship of the figures appears quite natural.
This early work is created out of luminous marble, and commemorates the removal of Christ from the crucifix when his mother took possession of the body.
As she holds Jesus’ lifeless body on her lap, the Virgin’s face emanates sweetness, serenity and a majestic acceptance of this immense sorrow, combined with her faith in the Redeemer. It seems almost 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 bloom. As we contemplate the Pieta which conveys peace and tranquility, we can feel that the great sufferings of life and its pain can be mitigated.
Here, many Christians recall the price of their redemption and pray in silence. The words may be those of the “Salve Regina” or “Sub tuum presidium” or another prayer. After Peter’s Tomb, the Pieta Chapel is the most frequently visited and silent place in the entire basilica.
It is said that Michelangelo had been criticized for having portrayed the Virgin Mary as too young since she actually must have been around 45-50 years old when Jesus died. He answered that he did so deliberately because the effects of time could not mar the virginal features of this, the most blessed of women. He also said that he was thinking of his own mother’s face, he was only five when she died: the mother’s face is a symbol of eternal youth.
The art work honors the Easter story of Christianity’s origins, about a crucified Christ who rose from the grave. That miracle confirmed the sacred message that had been brought, the Word of love and redemption from sin.
Hopefully, one day the world will learn to give and make a place for the message of love that it honors at Easter.
Photo by Stanslav Traykov, at Wikimedia commons.