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  • Last Updated: March 3, 2014
  • Originally Published: July 18, 2012
  • The Pieta

History

The pietà is a subject within Christian art in which the Virgin Mary holds her son Jesus after his crucifixion. The first Pietà was created in the 14th century, and the scene was depicted in numerous paintings and sculptures though the 19th century. The contrasts between the living and the dead, a mother and her son, and human and divine nature are all elements that make this theme in Christian art so profound.

The Pieta

Portrayals of Mary with Jesus lying in her lap began in Germany in the 14th century and soon spread to France, becoming a very popular Franco-German theme in the 14th and 15th centuries. Some depictions of the Pieta include John the Apostle, Mary Magdalene, or other figures on either side of Mary, but the most common and the most prominent examples feature only Mary and Jesus. Although many artists painted and sculpted this theme, it was Michelangelo's 1499 sculpture that became Pietà. Sculpted when the artist was only 24 years old, the Pietà employs the popular 15th-century Northern European style of Jesus draped across the lap of Mary, the two forming a pyramid-like structure. This format was traditional until the 16th century, when Renaissance-period artists began placing Jesus at Mary's feet instead of draped across her lap,  his head is propped up against her knees. The new structure was adopted and passed on to Spain, Flanders,1 and Holland. As with most religious art, there was a decline of representations of the Pieta in the 17th century, but due to its profound and magnificent imaging, the Pietà theme continued to be popular well into the 19th century.

Even today, Michelangelo’s Pietà is the most famous representation of this theme. It is located at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy. One can attend mass at St. Peter's daily, as well as visit the museum to see artwork such as the Pietà. The sculpture is located in the right aisle in front of the first chapel and faces the altar. It is protected by glass, due to many attempts at vandalism, some of which were successful. The Pietà is one of many works that can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica, but the only work by Michelangelo. Each year, about four million people visit St. Peter’s Basilica.

Description

Michelangelo's Pietà forms a triangular shape, with Mary’s head at the uppermost point. Mary is looking downward at Jesus, whom she is holding in her arms across her lap. Jesus, who has been beaten and crucified, is lifeless. Jesus’s visible wounds include small nail marks in his hands and feet and a scar from the spear that went through his side. Mary is dressed in draping fabric and appears youthful, even though the biblical accounts indicate that she would have been in her fifties at the time of Jesus's death.

Michelangelo wanted the Pietà to be a depiction of the communion between God and his people through the sanctification of Jesus Christ.

The Pietà suggests the horrific nature of Jesus's crucifixion and the painful reality of a mother losing her child. The death of Christ is essential to Christian doctrine since Christians believe that Jesus was God who became mortal to save humanity, and the juxtaposition of Christ's human and divine natures is alive in the Pietà.