The life of Jesus has completely dominated the subject matter of Christian art from Roman times to the present day. One of the most important works of art in the world is Michelangelo’s Pieta (which I get to visit next month!). While you can find art depicting Jesus in countless ways, Michelangelo’s Pieta focuses on the humanity of Christ, as his lifeless body lays in the hands of his mother, after being taken off the cross.
The sculpture was commissioned in 1498. At that time, Michelangelo was still young and unknown; the Pieta immediately made him famous—in his early twenties (way to kill my self-esteem, Mic)! The sculpture is now in St. Peter’s in Rome.
Look at Mary’s face. It seems much younger than her son’s. Her face is youthful and peaceful, framed by the delicate folds of her robe. She looks timeless, leaning slightly over the lifeless body of Christ. Until the 15th Century, the subject of the pieta was almost exclusively found in northern Europe; the frightening figure of Jesus and Mary, often disfigured in her grief, seemed to distress people attending worship into an awareness of Christ’s sacrifice.
Michelangelo changed this subject completely. He does not emphasize Mary’s grief, but reveals to us a mother accepting fate with a look of spiritual and physical beauty. Michelangelo once wrote, “If life pleases us, death, being made by the hands of the same creator, should not displease us.” That sentiment is reflected in his sculpture. The only slight sign of Mary’s sorrow is her outstretched left hand. Instead of correlating the concept of the Redemption with grief, Mary generates a mood of classical serenity.
The body of Christ is life-sized, but Mary is much larger. If she were to stand, she would be around seven feet tall, although her head is the same size as Christ’s! Part of what makes this composition so astounding is that the unusual proportions go unnoticed by the viewer. The body of the dead Christ displays a keen knowledge of anatomy—the proportions, veins, muscles; the 16th-Century artist Vasari wrote that “No corpse could more completely resemble the dead than does this.” Michelangelo certainly succeeded in depicting in marble a body that reminds believers that Jesus suffered physically and died, that he had the same physical limitations as other humans. It seems that the only thing that one could interpret as divine about this depiction of Christ are his veins—one could interpret the protruding veins as still pumping with life, and therefore giving the viewer a glimpse of hope that Christ will rise again in three days. Though dead, he is still alive, hinting at the fact that this is not an ordinary man. Still, the humanity of Christ is emphasized here—there are no halos, angels, golden heavenly light, or thrones. All the viewer sees is a lifeless body, the body of a frail human, who made his dwelling among the rest of humanity; we also “see” his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Colossians 2:9 reads, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…” Michelangelo had an extensive knowledge of anatomy and created the nude figure of Christ in that bodily form, as the very epitome of man—a figure in which there was no need, as he put it, "to make the human disappear behind the divine."
Michelangelo’s Pieta is, in my opinion, the most beautiful sculpture in the world. The serenity on Mary’s face, as she cradles the body of her lifeless son in her arms, is hauntingly beautiful. A work of deep piety, this sculpture reminds me that pain was a condition of redemption, but beauty is one of its consequences. The lucidity of Christ’s body in the lap of Mary reminds me that Christ “poured out his life” and “bore the sin of many.” (Isaiah 53:12) I am reminded of the extent of God’s love, but also the severity of my own sins. I am also reminded that Jesus came to earth, “but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7) The redemption that Christ offers us is a reality and is available to us, for “it was not merely a finite human, but an infinite God who died.” This masterpiece is so beautiful and unforgettable that for most people, the term “pieta” evokes only the Pieta of St. Peter’s, because of the way that it speaks uniquely to every believer’s heart.