Disclaimer: At the end of this post I’m going to reveal something about a beloved sculpture that might alter the way you look at it. If you’re disappointed when magicians reveal their secrets, consider reading no further.
Michelangelo’s Pietà, carved in 1499 when the sculptor was only twenty-five, is one of the most famous and beloved sculptures in the world. Many of us have seen it on display in Saint Peters in Rome. Millions more have seen plaster and plastic versions of it, photos printed on Christmas and Easter cards, puzzles, and even gold-plated charms on bracelets. Like the Mona Lisa, our familiarity with this sculpture now prevents us from seeing it for the miracle it truly is. Recently, a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold for just under 120 million dollars. The Scream, whether we like it or not, is one of the most famous works of art in the world. But was it worth the price?
Michelangelo’s work, even his failures, are far greater than anything Munch created, but modern society is far more willing to shell out big bucks for works by tormented souls like Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Edvard Munch. Yet few artists were tormented by their work more than Michelangelo, who once wrote a sonnet claiming that he might have been happy if art hadn’t ruined him.
A bit of background. During the Renaissance, successful artists were treated the way NBA players are treated today—as celebrities. In Florence, buzz was building over Michelangelo’s work. When he arrived in Rome a dying cardinal commissioned him to carve a marble sculpture for Saint Peter’s Basilica, a pietà—a representation of the dead Jesus held in the arms of his grieving Mother. The only instructions given were that the sculpture should be finer than anything being produced at that time in Rome and that it should make viewers weep. Michelangelo worked quickly, but the cardinal died before the statue was completed. Although he had no authorization to place his sculpture inside the Basilica, Michelangelo hired a family of brawny stonecutters to move the statue in the dead of night. The stonecutters refused money when they saw the sculpture, claiming they would receive payment in Heaven.
The next day Michelangelo wandered into Saint Peters to see how his sculpture was being received. A group of art connoisseurs surrounded his Pietà; they were speculating on who could have carved such an extraordinary statue. The names of various sculptors were bandied about; Michelangelo’s name was not among them. That night, Michelangelo returned with candles, hammer and chisel. On the sash between the Virgin’s breasts he carved these words: Michelangelo Buonarroti, a Florentine, made this. Never again would he need to sign his work.
Michelangelo reached the remarkable age of eighty-nine, slam-dunking the world with a body of masterpieces that has never been equaled. But this youthful work has tugged at heartstrings for centuries, and rightfully so because something amazing is happening.
First a fact: men are generally larger and heavier than women, so a composition showing the body of a thirty-three year old man lying across the lap of a normal sized woman is going to look unsightly, clumsy, awkward. Medieval artists relished this affront to beauty. They emphasized the ungainliness of Mary struggling to keep the body sprawled across her lap from sliding to the floor like a lead petticoat. But Michelangelo’s Mary is not shown as a normal mother of a crucified adult male; Her face is that of a teenager, as if Her purity and innocence have kept Her from aging, as if the realization of God’s will has shielded Her from emotion. And yet—here’s where the magic comes in—this young girl effortlessly supports the dead man on Her lap, as if He weighed less than a deflated basketball. In anticipation of the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus weighs nothing at all.
How does Michelangelo achieve this miracle? He was reported to have made hundreds of drawing to achieve this effect but burned them all when the sculpture was completed, as was his custom. The faces of Mary and Jesus are depicted close together. Both are of normal size. But to support Jesus’ body Michelangelo has distorted human anatomy. Beneath the marble drapes, Mary has legs that would be the envy of any professional basketball player, legs that could catapult their owner twenty feet into the air. In fact, the bottom half of Mary’s body is so disproportionately large that if She were to stand She’d be between seven and eight feet tall.
Such was Michelangelo’s mastery at the age of twenty-five that we simply don’t notice the effortless manner in which Mary supports her Son. Take a close look at the slack muscles, the veins on Jesus’ limp arms and wrists; mastery of anatomy such as this, registered in stone, has rarely been equaled. Through this miracle in marble we bear witness to the recreation of a biblical event, a whisper in stone that answers prophesy by shouting our humanity and our faith: Thy will be done.
No work of art is worth 120 million dollars, but Michelangelo's Pietà comes close.