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Michelangelo Buonarroti and His Famous Pietà

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Michelangelo was an extremely famous artist for his time that created revolutionary works of art that are still influential today. Most of Michelangelo’s pieces that are discussed are his later works, such as the Risen Christ or the Campidoglio. However, one extremely influential earlier piece of his is the Pietà. The pietà is a Christian depiction only seen in art and was never described in the bible. It shows the Virgin Mary holding her recently deceased son, Jesus, on her lap prior to his burial. This sculpture is a typical scene in Christian art; however, Michelangelo made a new take on this classic. Michelangelo creates a deeper meaning to the pietà scene by implementing new and intricate details, utilizing lighting, and creating new character movement to hint at the resurrection rather than the death of Christ.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6th, 1475 is Caprese, Italy although from infancy through young adulthood he was raised in Florence, Italy. At a young age, he was placed with a family of stonecutters who taught him the trade. Michelangelo was well educated, however, he was always much more interested in artistry. At the age of just 13, Michelangelo took an apprenticeship under the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and it was there he was first taught the technique of fresco. A year later, Michelangelo studied classical sculpture in the gardens of Lorenzo de’Medici and then study under the famous sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. After being duped by the antique appearance of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures, Cardinal Riario invited Michelangelo to Rome in 1498 and he remained there for the remainder of his life. It was not long after this that Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas commissioned the Pietà. Cardinal Jean Bilhères was a representative of King Charles VIII of France and was in the process of decorating his side chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Jean Bilhères hired Michelangelo to create a statue to go above his tomb. With the completion of the Pietà, Michelangelo’s career took off and it was not long until he was, and still is, known as one of the best artists ever to live.

Cardinal Jean de Bilhères de Lagraulas is believed to be born in 1434 in Gascony, France. He was appointed bishop of Lombez, France in 1473 at the age of 39. On December 2nd, 1491 he was appointed coadjutor bishop of Saintes, France only to resign a year later. On September 20th, 1493 Jean de Bilhères de Lagraulas became a cardinal and after being appointed the bishop of three other French towns, he became a representative of King Charles VIII in Italy’s capital, Rome. Cardinal Jean de Bilhères was an avid art collector and had a special liking for ancient Roman sculptures. He would place them around his villa in Rome and prided himself on his ability to tell real ancient art from fakes. However, he deceived by an art dealer that one of Michelangelo’s pieces of Cupid was ancient Roman art. After discovering that it was a fake, he contacted the dealer to learn of the artist. Cardinal Jean de Bilhères was amazed by Michelangelo’s accuracy and hired him to create a sculpture to be placed in his side chapel tomb. In 1498, Michelangelo began his work on the Pietà.

In the renaissance period, the papacy and Christianity as a whole had great control over the Western European world. The pope, being the head of the Catholic Church, had rule over every Catholic, including kings. This would have meant that the papacy, in theory and sometimes in practice, was also the head of all politics in Western Europe. During the making of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Europe had just erupted in war over Italian land and civil dispute over the pope’s legitimacy. Just 17 years earlier, the papacy was for the first time ever in the hands of a Spaniard; Pope Alexander VI. Many Christians were unhappy with the election of a Spanish pope, they also believed that his family helped Alexander commit simony. At the same time, Alexander, along with the help of Spain and Maximilian, had just managed to force the French out of Naples from their invasion four years before. The previous pope, Innocent VIII, had promised that the French would gain control over Naples due to its king not paying papal taxes. However, neither he nor Alexander later recognized this promise and so in 1494 the French invaded Naples. By 1493, the pope along with Maximilian and the Spanish army managed to Force the French out, however, by the completion of the Pietà in 1499 the French had started their second invasion, this time taking Naples, Milian, and Genoa. Clearly, Michelangelo would have been working on the Pietà in a time of great civil unrest and social change in Rome.

Michelangelo’s Pietà was created from 1498-1499 and was originally placed in a domed side chapel at St. Peter’s basilica. It has been moved many times, one of which was to New York City for the 1964 World’s Fair. It was then placed in its current location, a different, regular side chapel at St. Peter’s behind a wall of glass. The Pietà is made out of a single Carrara marble block from the town of Carrara in Italy. It is rumored that Michelangelo said that the Pietà was made out of the most perfect block marble he ever used. He polished and refined the Pietà more than any other marble sculpture he ever created, only attesting to this rumor. In the Pietà, Mary holds the body of her son with his torso stretched across her lap. One hand holds the upper body of Jesus while the other is outstretched to her left, the direction that would have originally been the entrance to the domed side chapel. Despite Mary’s gesturing, she is looking down upon her son who lies in a lifeless position with his head falling back and his right-hand falling towards the ground. At first glance, Michelangelo’s Pietà appears to be extremely similar to that of previous pietà scenes, however, after inspecting the details of his Pietà this is proved false. In the original dome, the natural lighting would have come from above and shone down upon the Pietà. This would have cast a shadow over Mary’s face due to her hood yet cast a bright light onto the body of Jesus. Mary’s outstretched hand is significantly large relative to her body and to her other hand, however, when seen from the front, this detail is hidden behind one of Jesus’s knees. Mary’s other hand is holding Jesus underneath his armpit, however, she is not directly touching his skin. She holds him underneath some cloth from a fold in her dress. Despite Jesus having aged into an adult, Mary does not appear to have aged herself. She still has an extremely youthful face seeming not a day older than when she gave birth to Jesus. In addition, Mary’s face is not mournful, as often seen in pietàs, but rather has a hint of joy or relief that can be seen in her calm eyes and slightly upturned lips. Another detail to mention is the strap that runs across her chest. It runs from her left shoulder, in between her breasts, down to her right side. This strap also has Michelangelo’s signature on it, his only mark ever recorded. It is clear that Jesus is recently deceased from his death on the cross. He has the crucifixion mark on his right hand and is lying in a lifeless position. One of the most important, yet overlooked details of Michelangelo’s Pietà is the veins on Jesus’s arms and feet. On both feet, veins run from his toes to the middle of his foot and on his right arm veins run from his fingers to his elbow. What is significant about this is that Jesus appears to be deceased, however, after a person dies, their veins recede due to lack of blood flow. This would imply that perhaps Jesus is not in fact dead.

What truly makes Michelangelo’s Pietà so widely known, is his usage of lighting and sculpture details that reference important biblical themes, especially the resurrection of Christ. When placed in its original location, the Pietà’s light from above would have shadowed Mary and rather solely focused on Jesus’s body. This would have symbolized a holy light illuminating the child of God referencing his holiness as well as putting the focus of Jesus rather than on Mary. In its new location, this meaning is lost because the light on the Pietà comes from below, highlighting Mary and not Jesus. However, at the World’s Fair in 1964, this meaning was recaptured with a soft light shining from above. Both figures in Michelangelo’s Pietà have details, both prominent and minute, that give important meaning to the piece. When standing in renaissance St. Peter’s basilica, if one looked to their left while facing the main altar, they would have been beckoned into the domed side chapel by Mary. The intention of Mary’s enlarged outstretched left hand is to catch the eye of anyone outside the entrance to the chapel. With the enlarged hand, someone from farther away would notice it more prominently rather than if it was normal-sized. Although the unusual size of the hand is not noticed once standing in front of the sculpture because it is hidden behind Jesus’s knee. Mary’s hand is outstretched that it guides parishioners into the side chapel; she is calling them to come and see the body of their savior. In addition, by guiding parishioners to the sculpture, Mary is guiding people to pray over the statue and also the body of Cardinal Jean Bilhères, ultimately praying for his salvation. Once in front of the statue, one would have quite quickly noticed the unusual youth of Mary. This detail is said to reference two major Christian themes. The first is that throughout Mary’s life she never sinned, Michelangelo believed that by keeping her youthful it would reference this lifelong innocence. The other reason for her youth is to reference the birth of Christ. By keeping her young, Michelangelo is referencing the Madonna and Child while also hinting at Christ’s rebirth; he is born again causing his mother do be as she was at his original birth. It seems that the more important and revolutionary allusion Michelangelo tries to make with his Pietà is the rebirth of Christ. Along with Mary’s youth, the strap running across her chest is another reference to the rebirth of Christ. During the renaissance, this strap was used for mothers to hold their babies and can often be seen in Madonna and Child painting such as Barbadori Altarpiece by Filipoo Lippi. This would have been well knowledge during Michelangelo’s time and would have been an obvious reference to Jesus’s rebirth for all who visited St. Peter’s. Possibly the most crucial detail to understanding Michelangelo’s intention is the veins on Jesus’s limbs. On both his feet and on his right arm, there are veins that are clearly seen through his skin. 

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