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Pieta
Used with permission of www.christusrex.org

THE ARTS

A Pieta Anniversary

By Bill Dodds
The story of the creation of Michelangelo’s Pieta


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Michelangelo began work on the Pieta—his sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ—when he was 23 years old. The finished work was first displayed in St. Peter’s during the Holy Year of 1500; the many pilgrims to Rome who saw his work assured that the artist’s fame would spread throughout Europe. Follow the interesting details of Michelangelo’s incredible work.

It was over 500 years ago. The date on the formal commission reads Aug. 27, 1498.

The contract read that Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas, the French king’s envoy to the pope, agreed to pay Michelangelo 450 gold papal ducats for a statue of Jesus and Mary. The 23-year-old sculptor had one year to complete the piece, starting from the day he began work on it. The cardinal planned to use it for his tomb.

The previous year, the artist and ambassador had reached an agreement on the commission, and on November 18 the cardinal wrote to the officials of the tiny republic-state of Lucca, to the north of Rome in Tuscany. He requested they help Michelangelo find the marble he would need for the statue.

“We have recently agreed with master Michele Angelo di Ludovico, Florentine sculptor and bearer of this, that he make for us a marble tombstone (Pieta, Italian for “pity”), namely a clothed Virgin Mary with a dead Christ naked in her arms, to place in a certain chapel, which we intend to found in St. Peter’s in Rome. … And on his presently repairing to those parts to excavate and transport here the marbles necessary for such a work, we confidently beg your lordships out of consideration for us to extend to him every help and favor in this matter. . . .”

Lucca was known for its marble quarries, including Carrara, which yielded the largest, finest blocks of the brittle white stone that was so hard to work with, but especially prized by sculptors.

Michelangelo went there that November and found what he needed.

He had the single block transported to Rome and there, using a drill as well as a chisel, created a piece that art critics then, and now, call “technically brilliant.” The composition—the Virgin and dead Christ—was based on French sculptures on the same subject that had been popular in the previous century.

The statue stands 69 inches high and depicts a surprisingly young Mary. Asked why he chose to portray Christ’s mother like that, Michelangelo answered, “Women who are pure in soul and body never grow old.”

The artist didn’t meet his deadline. It took him two years to complete the work—he finished in 1500—and by then Cardinal Bilheres had died.

The statue was first set up in the chapel of Santa Petronilla in the old St. Peter’s as preparations for the central celebration of the Holy Year of 1500 were being completed. Having his statue—his first major work—seen by thousands of pilgrims who would then return to their homes through Europe, meant Michelangelo’s fame would spread throughout the continent.

But only if they knew it was his statue.

A group of visitors was admiring his work when he happened to pass by and overheard what was being said. A person commented the statue had been carved by “our Gobbo from Milan”—referring to Cristofero Solari, one of several artists of that family.

Later, Michelangelo returned to the chapel alone at night and carved his name in ornate Roman letters in Latin on the band running diagonally across Mary’s chest, making the Pieta his only signed work.

Around 1535, the statue was moved to a different chapel, and in 1626 it was placed in its present position in the first chapel on the right.

There it remained, undisturbed for almost three-and-a-half centuries until Pentecost Sunday morning 1972, when a man climbed over the railing in front of it and hit the statue repeatedly with a hammer. The marble was repaired and now thick, strong glass stands between the Pieta and its viewers.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds




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