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Masterpieces of the Vatican: Michelangelo’s Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Exploring Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà

Amongst the many reasons to visit the St. Peter’s Basilica, one shines with its own light: the Pieta, an impressive sculpture by Michelangelo. This sculpture is considered to be one of the most important works of the Italian Renaissance which served to confirm a young sculptor aged just 21, recently arrived in Rome, as a master of his time of world fame and launch him on an artistic career which left us some of the greatest jewels of art.

In this article we will proceed to describe the most important aspects of this Vatican masterpiece.

Where it is

The sculpture can be freely viewed within the Basilica, in the first chapel on the right after entering, between the Holy Door and the Altar of Saint Sebastian. It is tucked behind a transparent protective panel to protect it from vandals.

What it represents

The Pieta represents Jesus deceased after being taken down from the cross and his body rests in the lap of his sorrowful mother, before he was placed in his tomb. The dramatic quality of the scene almost disappears thanks to the sweetness, serenity and humanity of its representation.

The Virgin Mary has a very youthful appearance, which some criticised when it was sculpted claiming it was an unreal depiction of the mother of a 33-year-old man. The sculptor defended this claiming that her virginity meant she remained youthful and pure for longer.

She also has larger proportions than her son, so that if both were placed standing up, the Virgin would be much taller than Christ. The whole has a pyramidal form, with the face of the Lady at the pinnacle and the stone of Golgotha they rest on at the base.

Things to bear in mind when observing it

-The image of Christ lacks the most dramatic signs of the Passion. This is because Michelangelo did not wish to represent death, rather he wished to focus on serenity and the loss of the deceased son.

-The work was the product of a commission by Bishop Jean of Billheres to a young sculptor from Florence to adorn his mausoleum.

-One of the most noteworthy elements of the sculpture is the work carved in stone to represent the mantles and cloth which cover the Virgin. The skill in sculpting the marble is such, that these elements cease to be stony and appear to be natural silk.

-It is the only one of Michelangelo’s sculptures which he signed. The doubts which some expressed over the authority of the sculpture caused a young and proud Michelangelo to add a band on the chest of the Virgin with his name inscribed in Latin. The author later regretted this and never signed any of his sculptures again.

-The images appear idealised, perfect and almost divine, in contrast with the dramatic quality of the scene. The author wished to apply to his work the platonic ideals of divinity and he also stressed this in the image of Christ, with whose body the Virgin does not enter into contact directly, rather through cloths.

-Michelangelo said that the block of Carrara marble he used was the best he worked with in his entire career. And that may be the reason why his Pieta is the finest, most polished of his sculptures.


-The sculpture has been damaged on two occasions during its history: once while being transported in the XVIII century, and again by an act of vandalism in the 1970s, when a mentally unbalanced individual attacked the sculpture with a hammer, damaging mainly the Virgin’s face and hands.

-The sculpture was moved to New York for the universal fair of 1964-1965 and was the main attraction for visitors to the Vatican Pavilion.

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