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Essay On Michelangelos Pieta

I was invited by my fiancé and a friend to view St Peter’s and the Papal Basilicas of Rome 3D, a documentary that was visually stunning, with close-ups to the interiors, sculptures, and pictures. Among these was Michelangelo’s Pietà. Therefore, I am uploading this essay which was written for an Italian Renaissance course as a quasi-commemorative gesture to this event.

Pietà – photograph copyright Stanislav Traykov


Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà (1498-99, St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City) was the first depiction of this Christian theme executed in marble. Its heightened sense of realism, along with its aesthetic beauty, makes it both a contemporary and present day masterpiece. It promotes the highly religious subject matter in a new medium, which in this case changes the appreciation of the sculpture from a solely devotional function to also being considered for its craftsmanship. Regarding this essay, we analyse the composition and iconography of Pietà, as well as outlining the background of Michelangelo, the commission, and its impact in Renaissance Italy.

Michelangelo was considered, ever since the start of his career, as the paramount of brilliance; his artwork too exceptional to be compared with the work of other stone-carvers (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.610). The focus and determination emitted by Michelangelo, in his pursuit to understand and master aesthetics, was well known among his contemporaries. By all appearances, he did not wish to be tied down by conventions, and therefore was unafraid to sever from them (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.611).

During Michelangelo’s youth, he was familiar with the workshop of the painter Ghirlandaio. The experience did not appeal to him, and it is believed that this may have swayed Michelangelo towards sculpture. The style of ancient Roman sculpture captivated the young artist as it had done with Donatello, whom subsequently influenced Bertoldo (Gilbert, 1973, p.159). The latter allegedly taught Michelangelo in the sculptural garden of Lorenzo de Medici’s home (Vasari, 2008, p.419).

Thus, along with Michelangelo’s interest of ancient Roman sculpture, he was also encouraged by the work and rebellious personality of Bolognese artist Jacopo della Quercia. The Bolognese artist reaffirmed Michelangelo’s pursuit for beauty through the rejection of conventions, and the use of  full-scale human figures modelled with substantial drapery that give the illusion of weight (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.611).

In the course of Michelangelo’s stay in Rome, during the late 15th century, he executed three sculptures: a Cupid, that is now unfortunately lost;  a harmonious Bacchus (1496-97, National Museum of Bargello, Florence), which due to its ancient Roman theme may have been controversial as, when it was crafted, Savanarola was in power (Gilbert, 1973, p.159); and finally a sculpture titled Pietà. The latter two are both distinguished and executed in marble, yet both differing tangibly in style and form (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.613; Seymour, 1966, p.215).

Pietà was commissioned by a French cardinal named Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas. The original location destined for it was at one of the chapels, St Petronilla, of the old basilica of St Peter (Seymour, 1966, p.216). It was to be carved for the tomb of the French cardinal, although this chapel has since been demolished, the sculpture currently resides in the new St Peter’s Basilica in what is now the Vatican City. In both contexts, the object is displayed in the setting it was designed for: a religious one. Pietà is a devotional work, a genre which predominated a large portion of the market during the Italian Renaissance (Richardson,2007, p.58).

The subject matter of Pietà was not new: the theme was quite popular during the Renaissance in Northern European sculpture and was also present in Italian paintings. However, Michelangelo’s version is distinctive as it was the first to be executed in marble. It can be argued, that since the patron intended this commission to be located in a chapel to decorate his tomb, Michelangelo may not have had much to say with regards to the material that was to be used (Ziegler, 1995, p.33). When Michelangelo executed Bacchus, he experienced defects with the marble and therefore travelled to the quarries in Carrara, where he chose an adequate block for Pietà, his next commission. Carrara marble was the most expensive marble due to its higher quality, becoming a favourite between artists and patrons alike (Welch, 2000, p.55).

Pietà depicts the melancholic moment where, after Christ’s crucifixion, his body is situated on the lap of his mother, the Virgin Mary. Her bowed head displays a reflective and serene expression, delicate and youthful, concealing the true severity of the event. She is engrossed in the figure of her son who lays across her, his head hanging lifelessly (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.613). Mary’s left hand is outstretched, her gesture may suggest that she is both displaying Christ and questioning his demise. This event is not mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless it was a very popular Christian image since the beginning of the 14th century (Ziegler, 1995, pp.28-29).

Gilbert (1973, p.160) states that both figures aid each other, developing their contrasting characteristics into a balanced pyramidal composition: on the one hand, the Virgin’s figure is depicted clothed, vertically positioned, and living; on the other hand, Christ’s figure is clothed only in his loincloth, horizontally positioned, and deceased. These contrasts aid to create a coherent composition.

This triangular composition has created many remarks regarding the two figures, especially the figure of the Virgin Mary which is disproportionate to the one of Christ (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.613). The size of the figure representing the Virgin encompasses a larger portion of the composition and therefore becomes the dominating figure (Seymour, 1966, p.216). In addition, Vasari (2008, p.426) claims that the depiction of Mary as young was not an oversight, as ‘true virgins remain youthful’. This particular work is conceptually divine and naturalistic because Mary’s grace of youth contrasts with the highly realistic and natural figures. This realism is especially noticeable in the veins and tendons protruding the marble skin of both figures, and in the contour of Mary’s breasts. The unity of divine and nature, thus the ideal and the real, is only captured in the art of the Renaissance, and particularly noticeable in Michelangelo’s Pietà (Pope-Hennessy, 1996, pp.115-116).

Vasari (2008, p.424) noted the detail in the figure of Christ. He argues that it would not be possible to otherwise match the realism achieved in Christ’s body in Pietà, whether imagined or crafted. Vasari states ‘…it is a miracle that a stone, formless in the beginning, could ever have been brought to the state of perfection which Nature habitually struggles to create in the flesh (p. 425)’. The accurate imitation of the natural human form, in the figure of Christ, is achieved through the compelling execution of his lamented shape: the rigidness of his muscles, faithful anatomical portrayal, and overall limpness of head and torso (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.613). This is accomplished through the use of design, and a consequence of Michelangelo’s anatomical knowledge, achieved through the dissection of dead bodies while at the church of Santo Spirito, Florence (Seymour, 1966, p.216; Vasari, 2008, p.422). Christ’s body does not show signs of injury (Saslow, 2000, p.231), and has the hallmarks of someone asleep rather than someone deceased (Steinberg, 1970, p.232). The head of Christ has been adeptly executed and is a balance between a naturalistic representation and pictorial conventions. It has influenced other artists, such as Benvenuto Cellini’s Crucifix (1562) located in the Escorial, Madrid (Seymour, 1966, p.216).

The complexity of the thick and heavy folds of the Virgin’s drapery are thoroughly delineated, a characteristic reminiscent of Verrocchio’s studies. Furthermore, this characteristic is enhanced by an illusion of pliability, a contrasting element that can be attributed to della Quercia. Thus, the juxtaposition of the drapery with the firmness of the figures enhances the illusion of vivacity and dynamism (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.613).

The subject matter of Pietà is compositionally challenging, especially when executed at such a large scale. It presents two adult figures, one lying on top of the other and therefore seemingly burdensome to be crafted into a harmonious composition (Murray & Murray, 1997, p.273). Michelangelo overcame this challenge and was particularly noted for the innovation of the dynamic body as a device to express beauty (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.611).

The polished finish creates a tactile illusion to the body of Christ, which heightens the overall realism of the artwork. It can be argued that this is the most finished piece that Michelangelo ever achieved (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.613). According to Vasari (2008, p.425), Michelangelo dedicated much time and effort to create such an accomplished piece that he decided to sign it. He did so inventively through a sash inscribed with his name that lies across the Virgin Mother’s chest, and Pietà is the only work that he ever signed. It highlights the theoretical question ‘when is art considered art?’, as Michelangelo left multiple of his artworks unfinished, yet nowadays they are deemed finished and have been elevated to the status of art. An example of this is the Battle of the Centaurs (c.1492, Casa Buonarroti, Florence) (Ceysson & Bresc-Bautier, 2002, p.611).

Vasari (2008, p.424) believed that Michelangelo’s ability and technique to render a block of marble into a sculpture was unmatched between his contemporaries. In his eyes, Pietà is the epitome of sculpture, unrivalled and radiant. Michelangelo expanded the definition of sculpture, opposing it to the Medieval style, and modernizing it (Ziegler, 1995, p.33). Previously, figures of Pietà in Northern Europe were largely functional. Having value only to the devout believer in a religious setting. However, Michelangelo’s Pietà, while retaining the religious subject matter, can be appreciated as a work of art by itself, without the need to be devotionally invested (Ziegler, 1995, p.34).


Reference List

Ceysson, B. & Bresc-Bautier, G. (2002). Renaissance. In  Duby, G. & Daval, J. (eds.). Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Present Day (pp. 555-634). Cologne: Taschen.

Gilbert, C. (1973). History of Renaissance Art throughout Europe. New York: Abrams

Murray, P. & Murray, L. (1997). The Art of the Renaissance. London: Thames and Hudson.

Pope-Hennessy, J. (1996). Italian Renaissance Sculpture (4th Ed.). London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Richardson, C. M. (2007). Locating Renaissance Art. London: Yale University Press.

Saslow, J. M. (2000). Michelangelo: Sculpture, Sex, and Gender. In McHam, S. B.(ed.). Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture (pp. 223-245). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seymour, C. (1966). Sculpture in Italy: 1400 to 1500. London: Penguin Books.

Steinberg, L. (1970). The Metaphors of Love and Birth in Michelangelo’s Pietàs. In Bowie, T. (ed.). Studies in Erotic Art (pp. 231-258). Michigan: Basic Books.

Vasari, G. (2008). The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Welch, E. (2000). Art in Renaissance Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ziegler, J. E. (1995). Michelangelo and the Medieval Pietà: The Sculpture of Devotion or the Art of Sculpture? Gesta. 34 (1). pp. 28-36.

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“The Pieta” by Michelangelo Essay

1238 Words5 Pages

Just as other works that reflect art, pieces in the category of fine arts serve the important message of passing certain messages or portraying a special feeling towards a particular person, function or activity. At times due to the nature of a particular work, it can become so valuable that its viewers cannot place a price on it. It is not the nature or texture of an art that qualifies it, but the appreciation by those who look at it (Lewis & Lewis, 2008).
There are a number of artists involved in this field who used their works to pass specific information such as Leonardo da Vinci. The other acknowledged artist is Michelangelo Buonarroti; an Italian artist renowned for his famous fine pieces of arts. The Pieta piece of…show more content…

It was later moved into the chapel during the 18th century. This followed his invitation by the cardinal to make the sculpture when he was only twenty three. Its first location was the Chapel of Santa Pentronilla which is a Roman mausoleum which the cardinal had selected for himself as a funerary chapel before its demolition during the basilica rebuilding (William, 1995).
The piece of art is a statue that portrays Jesus’ body laying on his mother Mary’s laps at the time after the crucifixion having been removed from the cross (Lewis & Lewis, 2008) which is evidenced by the marks of small nails and the indication of the wound located in Jesus’ side. It revolves around the major theme of Northern origin which during that time was present in France but not in Italy. According to (St. Peters Basilica, 2009) Michelangelo offered a unique interpretation of the pieta to the models since it is a significant piece of work that balances the ideals of a new beginning incorporated in typical beauty and a touch of naturalism which is illustrated by the relationship exhibited by the figures. This is made possible by his skill to prove to both the viewers and himself of the supernatural beauty.
It is moreover pyramidal in structure with the vertex coinciding with Mary’s head. The base of the sculpture depicts the rock of Golgotha and is broader than the progressive

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