Pieta is both a specific statue and a series of marble statues sculpted by Michelangelo. Every Pieta includes the Virgin Mary and Christ, and they sometimes also show other religious figures.

There are four carvings that may be called the Pieta, although the last two were never completed, and are not in very good condition. But when referring to 'the Pieta' people usually mean the one housed at St. Peter's in Rome, which depicts Mary holding the dead Christ. This is by far the best of the four--take a look at it here.

Aside from being a great work of art, this is the only surviving piece of work signed by Michelangelo. I believe that this one is his first Pieta, although it is very hard to find information on the correct chronological order of the statues.

Next comes the Pieta at Florence, santa Mria del Fior. This one was intended to be put over Michelangelo's tomb. Christ is being supported by Nicodemus from behind, Mary Magdalene on his right, and the Virgin Mary on his left.

While the first one is in near perfect condition*, and the second one is pretty good, the Palestrina Pieta in the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence is rather worn. Christ is in good enough condition, but the Virgin Mary, holding him up from behind, looks like a picasso. Magdalene, at his side, looks a bit better, but she's a little fuzzy around the edges.

The last one is the worst, by far. The Rondanini Pieta, located in Milan, in the Sforza Castle Civic Museums, looks as though a beaver has used it as a chew toy. The Virgin Mary is holding up a human shape that must be Christ. As far as I can find, it is most likely that the damage came from the centuries it stood in the courtyard of the Palazzo Rondanini. You can see it here.

Pietà is an Italian word that is usually translated (in this context) to mean mourning. It's interesting to note that a common translation of Pietà is also pity, which shares a Latin root (pietās) with piety. I suspect that there is a double meaning going on here, but I do not know enough of 15th century Italian to say anything definite.

These days pieta may refer to any work (painting or sculpture) depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of the dead Jesus, although unless it is clear from context which pieta is being referred to, you can assume that it is the one at St. Peter's.


* The St. Peter's Pieta was attacked by a madman named Laszlo Toth in 1972. He knocked off Mary's nose, part of her eyelid, and her right arm at the elbow. All has been made right again by the Vatican art-restoration laboratories.

In his time, artists like Raphael created works that showed the dead Christ being carried away with the Virgin Mary fainting in the background. Raphael’s ‘Entombment’ takes place in a lovely landscape with rolling, green hills. There are more characters than just Christ and Mary that allow for the chorus effect. Four other figures carry Christ, Mary Magdalene is closest to the body and there are several figures holding Mary up from fainting. She appears to be crying and in agony. The facial expressions of this portrait are crucial in that only Mary Magdalene appears to be truly upset. John is looking in at Christ. All of the others are not even looking at Christ, they are watching Mary and are worried for her. Christ himself looks only like he is sleeping. His mouth is open—almost as if he is snoring or sleeping peacefully.

An important Pieta painted by Baroque artist Annibale Carracci shows a different interpretation of the scene. In his painting, Christ’s body is positioned over Mary, but he looks to be flowing down from her lap. His body is almost fluid. Mary’s hand is turned as if she is asking her son and God why he had to die. She is, of course, sad, but the emotion lies in her hands. There are also two cherubs off to the side in the bottom right corner of the painting. One holds Christ’s hand—which appears to be barely clinging to life. The other is pointing to His wounds.

Carracci makes use of light and color in his painting by accentuating areas of the painting that he wants the viewer to see first. The body and position of Christ are most important, and Carracci paints them so that the emotion of the story is clearly there. Just by viewing this painting, the pain and heartache that Mary is feeling is communicated, as well as her confusion in why her son was chosen to die for all.

Michelangelo and the Pieta

By looking at the section of the ‘Topic v. Painter’ matrix concerning same subject/same artist, Michelangelo proves to be a great example with his two Pieta sculptures. In at least two significantly different times in his life, Michelangelo created sculptures of the Pieta (the moment when Mary holds the dying Jesus after he has been crucified and taken down from the cross). Probably the most recognizable Pieta is the one that sits in St. Peter’s Basilica. Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, this Pieta is the definitive Pieta. In 1499, when he was only 25 years old, Michelangelo created this piece. The figures that appear are extremely detailed. Following the Renaissance style of exploring Classical forms, Mary appears in Classical style. She is large and holds a presence in the statue. Christ is large as well, but Mary is more striking and young looking. She is present on the throne and shows a certain contained sorrow in her facial expression. There is some sense of a dead son, but Christ is sculpted so delicately that he seems as though he is resting on his mother’s lap and will awaken shortly.

In comparison to the earlier work in 1564, at age 80, he created another Pieta. This one is left unfinished because he died several days after beginning work on it. Because of this, only parts of the sculpture are polished, and the bare stone the sculpture is carved from is still present. This gives a look that the characters are coming out of the stone. The figures are standing, as opposed to sitting in the more recognizable position. The figures are connected, but the one behind is holding up the one in front. Though they are connected, the figure in the back is being dragged down by the figure in front. The emotions are alluded to in the body language. Although Michelangelo titled this piece a Pieta, it is not obvious that the figures are Christ and Mary. Because of this, Michelangelo is able to speak more to the spiritual aspect of the Pieta, rather than the physical, as he did years earlier. The sections that are unfinished also show the fragility of life. Also, since the figures are not easily recognizable, the universal relationship between mother and son is shown.

Michelangelo’s earlier work came before the Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. This was a time when he was a confident artist and man. His first Pieta almost overlooks the fact that Christ is dead. However, his last work shows the changes that have occurred during his lifetime. For example, the church has suffered major attacks by the Protestants and has been forced to reaffirm itself. Also, Michelangelo himself has seen the height of the Renaissance--and the repercussions of it. His later Pieta illustrates that he has realized his life is ending. In fact, the same emotions that are portrayed in his unfinished work are the same realizations that can be found in his other Sistine Chapel work, the Final Judgment.

Pi*e*ta" (?), n. [It.] Fine Arts

A representation of the dead Christ, attended by the Virgin Mary or by holy women and angels.

Mollett.

 

© Webster 1913.

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