Michelangelo's Pietà at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome VaticanThe Pietà of St. Peter's Basilica was a commission addressed to Michelangelo in 1498 from the French cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, former ambassador of Charles VIII in Rome.
At the time, the Pietà, that is, the representation of the Virgin Mary holding Christ on her knees after the deposition of the cross, was much more common in Northern Europe than in Italy.
This Pietà has been carved from the purest white Carrara marble, especially chosen on site by the artist himself.
Michelangelo wanted the statue of Mary to be alive and natural, while transforming her body into a podium on which the corpse of Jesus is presented to the compassion of the faithful.
« Among other beautiful things, besides the beauty of draperies, which are truly divine, the dead Christ is so remarkable that one cannot see a naked body more observed, with regard to the superposition of muscles, veins and nerves on the bone, nor of dead bodies more like a corpse than this one. »
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) « Lives of the most illustrious painters, sculptors and architects »
We perceive the loosening of the body, the total abandonment of Christ whose hand is taken in the folds of the garment of the Virgin Mary, who supports him without any apparent effort... and who seems younger than her son.
Some had criticized this beautiful face whose youth and serenity did not lend to a distressed mother.
They had not understood that this unalterable youth reflected the purity of his soul and divine status, and Michelangelo knew perfectly this verse of Dante's Divine Comedy:
« O Virgin Mother, and daughter of thy son, humble and raised higher than the creature. »
Dante Divine Comedy (Paradise singing XXXIII)
The Madonna of St. Peter of Rome reveals all the spirituality that guided her creation.
A simple detail shows us her humanity, her mother's state of mind: her left hand hanging in the void and back in relation to her body.
She presents Christ to us at the same time as she wonders: « This is my son, he was destined to die on the cross, but I cannot make a reason for it. »
To make marble speak, give it life, that's what Michelangelo wanted.
Cardinal Lagraulas was unfortunately unable to see La Pietà since he died before it was finished.
His heirs paid Michelangelo the 450 ducats provided for in the contract and, in accordance with his request, the Pietà was placed in the chapel of Saint Petronille, backed by the former St. Peter's Basilica. (Later this chapel was demolished to allow the expansion of the basilica.)
As soon as it was exposed to the sight of the crowd, the Pietà was appreciated as an exceptional work.
A luminous work thanks to the perfection of the polishing of marble which had cost Michelangelo's hours of work to the point of damage to his hands with grater, sand and pumice stone.
He had worked the material to the point of sublimation.
So, as soon as he learned that some visitors attributed his work to a Lombard sculptor, his blood was only a turn: he hastened to restore the truth... by engraving his name on the statue.
This was at the origin of this surprising “signature” in Latin that can be seen on the headband across the bust of the Virgin Mary:
« Michel Angelus Bonarotus Florent Facebat. »
« The Florentine Michelangelo did it » (literal translation).
It is the only sculpture signed by Michelangelo because it was not so much in the habits of the time, but it thus became the great ambassador of the genius of a young Florentine artist still unknown to the public.
Michelangelo was not yet 25 years old when he had completed this sacred work of art in an absolutely new style combining the aesthetics of the ancient statuary with the Christian mystic.
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