Michelangelo’s Pietà

I’m sure you’re all thinking, why aren’t you writing about his painting of the Sistine Chaple? Come on WidowCranky…that’s surely his most famous and mind blowing work! Well no.  For me the Sistine Chaple is a bit like a school girls bedroom covered in posters of the latest pop idol.  The ceilings work, while fine as stand alone pieces of art, becomes amazingly busy when viewed in its entirety and ended up being a drudgery for poor old Michelangelo, with the pope threatening to throw him off the scaffolding if he didn’t hurry up and finish.  As he didn’t want this he sped up the work and as such did not produce perhaps his finest finish in the overall piece.  A controversial view I know but having viewed the ceiling for myself and studied it a few times, while there are 3 story lines and a a central theme it was not his defining moment and he knew it.

Before I discuss the magnificence of the Pietà, let’s think about Michelangelo for a minute.  He was pretty much the rock star of art in his day.  At 15 he created 2 sculptures which left his class mates probably thinking I should just put the tools down and quit.  These being the Madonna on the stairs and the battle of Centaurs.  Neither are finished and this is a long running theme to his work, but both show the genius that was present in his hands.  He could sculpt, paint, write poetry, he even designed and built military forts.  

Michelangelo is the only artist of his time to have 2 autobiographies written about him while he was still alive and actively partook in the writing of them.  He was a self made success and knew how to elevate his status through his work.

Hopefully now you have a little appreciation for the man who was running around Italy at the same time as Da Vinci and quashing the dreams of other sculptors of the time.

On to the Pietà.  This was commissioned for Cardinal Jean de Bilhères who was a representative in Rome.  This was sculpted from one solid piece of Carrara marble which Michelangelo oversaw the excavation of, such were his perfectionist ways.

Lets put this piece in to context, this took 2 years to sculpt and was done when Michelangelo was 24.  At 24 I could just about paint wingtips on my eyes let alone sculpt something out of marble.

The picture above really doesn’t show the true beauty of this piece.  Carrara marble is known for its fine grain, which can therefore hold minute detail.  The marble is polished to the highest level, making this look like a tactile piece.

The statue depicts Mary, with Jesus in her lap after being brought down from the cross.  This is based on a German depiction of this scene and was little known in Italy at the time of its creation, although usually Mary would have been shown as emotional and enraged at the death of her son, Michelangelo shows her as serene, almost at peace.  Like she has the knowledge that this had to happen.

The image of her holding a full grown man in her lap, symbolises the strength of a mother, her gentle touch at his wound to his rib cage a gracefully place juxtaposition to the piece of the tenderness and pain caused by children.  The body of Jesus is limp and lifeless and this is so easily seen through the detail.

Ironically Michelangelo made a mistake on the proportions of Mary and as she is the stability of the statue (physically and metaphorically) the great folds of her dress were made to stabilise the piece and make her look in proportion to her son.  While this may have been a mistake, I think it’s a happy one, as look at the amazing detail that it has, each fold, each ruffle is seemless in the delivery.

This statue has come under fire from critics through out the ages for Mary looking so young.  She is beautiful in her features and composition.  Michelangelo’s reasoning for this was that chaste women stay younger looking than those who are not.  Clearly women were not big on oil of Olay at that time…

This is the only piece that Michelangelo signed.  His makers mark down the middle of the sash which Mary wears, as this is the piece that took him from being “that dude who’s pretty good at turning a piece of marble in to something” to being a house hold name.

This statue personifies so much and is a pure joy to view.

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