Art & History

Pietà (Michelangelo) | [HR] images & Facts

The Pietà  is a work of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. It is the first of a number of works of the same theme by the artist. The statue was commissioned for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, who was a representative in Rome. The sculpture, in Carrara marble, was made for the cardinal’s funeral monument, but was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right as one enters the basilica, in the 18th century. It is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed.

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Facts About Pietà

1. A FRENCH CARDINAL COMMISSIONED IT FOR HIS OWN FUNERAL. 

French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who served the church in Rome, wanted to be remembered long after he’d died. To achieve this goal, he hired Michelangelo to make a memorial for his tomb that would capture a scene that was popular in Northern European art at the time: the tragic moment of the Virgin Mary taking Jesus down from the cross. 

Actually, that undersells de Billheres’s request. Michelangelo’s exact job description for the project was to create “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.” While other sculptors might have balked at such an intense demand, Michelangelo was confident he could complete such a task. The Pietà is considered by many to be his greatest work, besting even David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

2. AFTER MORE THAN 200 YEARS, THE PIETÀ WAS MOVED TO ST. PETER’S BASILICA. 

The Late Renaissance church houses the religious monument within the first chapel to the right of its entrance. There, countless Vatican City tourists have viewed it. You can visit it virtually here

3. MICHELANGELO CARVED IT FROM A SINGLE SLAB OF MARBLE. 

Specifically, he used Carrara marble, a white and blue stone named for the Italian region where it is mined. It’s been a favorite medium of sculptors since the days of Ancient Rome. 

4. THE PIECE MADE MICHELANGELO FAMOUS WHEN HE WAS ONLY 24. 

Thanks in part to putting his name in plain sight on the Pietà, Michelangelo’s reputation grew as the public’s love of the statue did. The artist lived to the age of 88, enjoying decades of acclaim and appreciation for his works. 

5. IT’S A MASH-UP OF SCULPTING STYLES.

Michelangelo has long been praised for marrying Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with poses that favored naturalism. Another nod to Renaissance influence is a structure that ultimately resembles a pyramid, formed by Mary’s head, flowing down her arms and to the bottoms of her robes. 

6. MARY’S ROBES HIDE A CREATIVE COMPROMISE. 

If you look closely, you can see that Mary’s head is a bit too small for her very large body. When designing Mary’s measurements, Michelangelo could not impose realistic proportions and have her cradle her adult son as he envisioned. So, he had to make her—the statue’s support—oversized. To play down this poetic license on her form, Michelangelo carved out sheets of gentle draping garments, camouflaging Mary’s true fullness.  

7. THE PIETÀ WAS BRUTALLY ATTACKED. 

Michelangelo had a habit of shouting at his sculptures and even occasionally lashing out at them with his tools. But it was an unemployed geologist from Hungary who won infamy on Pentecost Sunday of 1972 by leaping over the railings at St. Peter’s Basilica to attack the Pietà with a hammer. With 12 blows, Laszlo Toth knocked off Mary’s left arm, snapped off the tip of her nose, and damaged her cheek and left eye. 

8. ITS DESTRUCTION WAS NOT DEEMED A CRIMINAL OFFENSE. 

The authorities chose not to criminally prosecute Toth for his destruction of the priceless work of art. However, a Rome court deemed him “a socially dangerous person,” and committed the man to a mental hospital for two years. After he was released, Toth was deported.

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