Updated: Dec 19, 2022
Michelangelo’s Pietà (1497-1500) (St Peter's Basilica, Vatican)
This marble sculpture is composed of the dead body of Christ supported on the knees of his mother, the Virgin Mary. Christ is outstretched on his back with his head is dramatically thrown back, exposing his vulnerable neck. Mary’s right arm supports his shoulder, forcing up his flesh; this highlights the weight, and hence the lifelessness, of Christ’s body.
Christ is shown naked expect for a tight fold perizonium that emphasizes the contours of his body while preserving his dignity and decorum; this degree of exposure could be echoing Christ’s vulnerability. In contrast, Mary is heavily clothed in heavy drapery that obscures her huge figure. Nevertheless, the fact that her breasts are modelled through the drapery, emphasizes the fact that she is Christ’s mother. She has a petite head, a slim neck and regular features in order to illustrate an image of sweetness and purity.
The extensive use of billowing drapery, such as the shroud below Christ’s body, seems to harmoniously interconnect the two forms of the figures; they are one. Mary’s left hand is outstretched, her palm towards the onlooker as if she is wordlessly presenting her son to the viewer; a gesture that silently accompanies her anguish. Her expression is not one of despair however, but more of contemplation, and thus she also encourages the onlookers to contemplate the event being portrayed before their eyes. Moreover, the fact that Christ has no stigmata creates the impression that he is merely asleep. This is enhanced by the fact that Christ’s face expresses peace and a sense of being at rest.
The detail of Christ’s face is astonishing considering that Michelangelo knew it was never going to be in view to the onlooker. The hair is rich and beautifully swept back, echoing Christ’s limp body slumped on his mother’s knees, and his beard and mustache have been carefully incised. The shroud below Christ which echoes the slumping of his body seems to foreshadow how he will be covered once he is in his tomb.
This work of art is an incredibly intimate and poignant depiction of mother and son.