Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta (1498-99)

Michelangelo's sculpture of the Pieta in the Vatican, carved when he was only 24, is known and admired by millions as one of those rare examples of sculptural perfection. Few discover, though, that like much great art it contains major inconsistencies in its depiction of the Virgin Mary and her dead son. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Michelangelo, Pieta (1498-99) Marble. St. Peter's, The Vatican. Rome

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The subject already had a sculptural tradition though mostly in Northern Europe. Italian examples were rare. The Polish and German Pietàs shown here (top) are from the preceding two centuries. Compared to Michelangelo's version, the biggest difference is the Virgin's size.1 His Mother of God is vast, her giant lap holding both her adult son's torso and upper legs. Oceans of fabric veil her enormity.2 Even her hands are larger than Christ's. Also her face, as was noted at the time, is far too young because realistically she ought to be middle-aged3; and Christ's dead body is visibly alive. His limbs are tense, not limp, and blood seems to pulse through his bulging veins. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Polish Late Gothic Pietà (n.d.) Wood
Top Center: German Gothic Pietà (c.1390) Walnut. Liebieghaus, Frankfurt.
Top R: German Gothic Pietà (c.1300-33) Wood. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn.
Bottom: Michelangelo, Pieta (Vatican)

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To make sense of the inconsistencies, consider Michelangelo's Florentine Pietà (top right). In that later version he gave Nicodemus his own self-portrait. Nicodemus, like the Virgin in Rome, is larger than the two principal figures, Christ and his mother. [The fourth on the left was added posthumously.] Thus, as explained elsewhere, Nicodemus, who was then thought to have been a sculptor, presents his "sculpture" of Christ and Mary to the viewer. Similarly the Vatican Virgin (who represents Michelangelo or his creative faculty) also displays her "masterpiece" to the world. That's why her figure is out of scale - Christ is a "sculpture".  This then explains why Michelangelo scandalously signed his name on a strap across her chest (bottom). It implies that "I, the sculptor, am the Virgin. She is my alter ego."4 You might be surprised by this idea but it was not unusual.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L and beolw: Two details of Michelangelo's Pieta (Vatican)
Top R: Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà (c.1547–53) Marble. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.

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Leonardo, in a lost work known through a copy (top), portrayed Archangel Gabriel looking straight out of the picture, implying that Leonardo, the artist in front of it, is the Virgin. Also un-noted (except on EPPH) is that Raphael in his celebrated Madonna della Sedia gave the Virgin his own features (center and bottom). And a prominent scholar has said that Titian, the fourth pictorial magician of the High Renaissance, identified with his female sitters and even perhaps with Mary Magdalen.5

This explains why the Virgin's hands in Michelangelo's Pietà are so large: they represent the hands of the male craftsman powered by the fertility of the female body. Moreover, he made Christ paradoxically lifelike because sculpture was meant to "breathe life" into stone. This subtly suggests, of course, that Michelangelo was God-like. Though his implied meaning may sound heretical, it would sound wise and philosophical to those following the Inner Tradition, then as now.6 Dozens of saints, artists and mystics would have understood it. Even St Francis claimed that anyone could become Christ’s mother by bearing Him in their hearts.7  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: After Leonardo, Copy of his lost Angel of the Annunciation (c. 1503-4) Oil on panel. Öffentliche Kunstammlung, Basle.
Center L: Detail, rotated, of image below
Center R: Detail of Rapahel's Self-portrait (c.1500-02) Black chalk on paper.
Bottom: Detail of Raphael's Madonna della Sedia (1513-14) Oil on panel. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
 

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This interpretation reveals a significant pun. Michelangelo who avoided the word idea referred to mental images of his work as concetti, in English conceptions.8 Others did too. Thus Michelangelo as Mary displays to the viewer his own Immaculate Conception, his "sculpture" of Christ, art's iconic subject.9 Christ represents the divine Self incarnate in each of us which is why St Augustine referred to Christ as our "inner Master".10

The last piece of visual evidence is a Pietà sculpted by Baccio Bandinelli for his own tomb (bottom). Bandinelli was an admiring but jealous, younger contemporary of Michelangelo with less talent. His ambitious, over life-size Pietà combines elements from both of Michelangelo's Pietàs. The kneeling figure of Nicodemus is Bandinelli himself, a self-portrait like Michelangelo's in the Florentine version. The prostrate Christ, though, refers to the Vatican Pietà. Note how Christ's figure is larger than Nicodemus behind him, not as in Michelangelo's Roman sculpture, smaller than the Virgin. Bandinelli, it seems, understood Michelangelo the same way we have.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Michelangelo, Vatican Pietà (1498-9)
Bottom: Bandinelli, Pietà (1554-59) Marble. Santissima Annunziata, Florence.

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A literary scholar also showed in the 1970's how prominent medieval ecclesiastics, all male, imagined themselves as the Virgin or other biblical women. St Bonaventure, the 13th-century theologian, wanted to become the Virgin Mary in order to experience the compassion she felt at Christ's crucifixion. He also saw each stage of an individual's spiritual ascent personified as a woman. According to him, whether you are a St Catherine (an innocent) or a Mary Magdalene (a repentant sinner), "finally you may become a Mary, Mother of God. In order to bear Christ in the soul, man must first become Mary for Mary...is the gate of heaven, essential to man's salvation."[my italics]11

Like all true artists, Michelangelo presents his mind in the Vatican Pietà as creative, fertile, divine and androgynous, features without which no mind can fulfil its human potential. For an esoteric Christian like Michelangelo, Christ had always represented self-knowledge personified, which is the divine in man. In modern parlance, Christ represents a fully realized human being. This means naturally that Christ is "Michelangelo" as well so that the Virgin as Michelangelo has "sculpted" herself. The Pietà then works on at least two levels: on the surface as narrative for the vast majority who think that God is external and scripture historical. For them the Pietà is biblical illustration, beautifully executed yet full of rarely seen inconsistencies. It is, in essence, illogical and meaningless. You'd be better off reading the Bible. On the hidden level, the Pietà is a spiritual guidebook, inspiring and in-forming lovers of wisdom who know that divinity is inside us and have the eyes to sense it. It tries to express in stone what cannot be expressed in words: the nature of divine creation in the human mind, pure consciousness or God itself.

Notes:

1. The size discrepancy has been explained as a continuation of a trecento tradition of making the figure of Christ in a Pietá the symbolic size of a child, far smaller in proportion than Michelangelo’s Christ (Leo Steinberg, “The Metaphors of Love and Birth in Michelangelo’s Pietas” in Studies in Erotic Art, ed. T. Bowie and C.V. Christenson (New York: Basic Books) 1970, p.234; Making and Meaning, op. cit., p. 54). In 1943 De Tolnay referred to the earlier tradition but did not note the difference in scale, claiming that Michelangelo maintained the natural proportions (Charles De Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo, rev. ed. (Princeton University Press) 1969, p. 91). Lombardo argued semantically that Christ’s figure is not ‘unnaturally small’ because it is in fact life-size while it is Mary’s figure which is larger than life. He believed this was done because the sight of the Virgin trying to balance a fully grown man would have looked incongruous. That is perhaps true but does not explain Michelangelo’s conception which always took priority over formal considerations. He noted that it is only the Virgin’s body which is larger because her head is similar in size to Christ’s (Josef Vincent Lombardo, Michelangelo: The Pietà and Other Masterpieces (New York: Pocket Books) 1965 pp. 38-9). It is worth noting that Adrea Orcagna's self-portrait in his 14th-century marble tabernacle in the Orsanmichele in Florence is significantly larger than those of the apostles for, in all likelihood, a similar reason. Michelangelo would have known the taberbacle very well.

2. Agostino Caracci’s sixteenth-century engraving after the sculpture further emphasizes the discrepancy in size by making the Virgin look even larger. Reproduced in The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 39 (Abaris Books) 1980, p. 144, Plate 104 (94).

3. When contemporaries criticized Michelangelo for making the Virgin too young, he reportedly replied: ‘Don’t you know that chaste women remain far fresher than those who are not chaste? So much more the Virgin, in whom never has the least lascivious desire ever arisen that might alter her body. Moreover, let me add this, that besides such freshness and flower of youth being maintained in her in this natural way it may be believed to have been assisted by divine power to prove to the world the virginity and perpetual purity of the mother. This was not necessary in the Son; rather completely the opposite; because to show that, as He did, the Son of God took a truly human body, and was subjected to all that an ordinary man endures except sin, there was no need for the divine to hold back the human, but to leave it to its order and course, so that the time of life He showed was exactly what it was. Consequently, you are not to wonder if for those reasons I have made the most Holy Virgin, mother of God, far younger in comparison with her Son than her age would ordinarily require, and that I left the Son at His own age.’ I believe the comment, if accurate, is intentionally misleading because few, if any, great artists have ever revealed their underlying meaning. Like Picasso, they often mislead friends, family and contemporaries. Ascanio Condivi, “Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti” [1553], trans. G. Bull in Michelangelo, Life Letters, and Poetry (Oxford University Press) 1999, p.22.

4. For a discussion of Michelangelo’s inscription, see Making & Meaning: The Young Michelangelo (London: National Gallery) 1994, p. 54 and n.30, p. 78. Vasari, in what is surely an apocryphal story to excuse Michelangelo, explained that the sculptor was forced to sign his name so prominently when he overheard a spectator attributing the sculpture to another artist. However Vasari probably suspected the hidden meaning because in describing how ‘the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute (the sculpture) so divinely and so perfectly’ he ignored the Virgin, focusing his description squarely on the body of Christ with just one passing mention of the drapery. He wrote of Christ's figure: ‘It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse’ His description of how the outer parts are 'stretched over their framework' is strongly suggestive of how a plaster sculpture is stretched over its armature. See Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge) 1995, p. 85. As for the discrepancy in the size of the two figures it is thought to be, when it is noted, part of a much earlier tradition recalling the infancy of Christ. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, trans. G.Du C. de Vere (New York: Harry N. Abrams)1979, v.3, pp.1841-3.

5. Rona Goffen, Titian’s Women (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1997, pp.10-11, 22, 178, 185, 187, 286. Titian, sending a picture of the Virgin to Emperor Charles V, wrote an accompanying letter requesting an overdue payment: ‘My supplication to the Virgin Mary to intercede for me with Your Majesty is shown in her image, which now comes before Your Majesty with an expression of grief which reflects the intensity of my troubles.’ Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn. The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York: W.W.Norton) 1969, p. 266.

6. Summers has observed that "Michelangelo could be as irreligious as he could be religious." David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton University Press) 1981, p.10.

7. Many ecclesiastics in the Middle Ages also referred to Jesus as their Mother. Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Sprituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1982, pp. 140; 138, n.97; 147

8. Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 1968, p.118; David Summers, “Form and Gender” in Visual Culture: Images and Interpretation, eds. N. Bryson, M.A. Holly and K. Moxey (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press) 1994, p.386

9. Michelangelo's pun in the Vatican Pietà supports my claim that art, in general, depicts a mental image, especially in art's masterpieces.

10. Guy G. Strousma, “From Esotericism to Mysticism in Early Christianity” in Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Religions, ed. Hans G. Kippenberg and Guy G. Strousma (Leiden: E. J. Brill) 1995, p. 301

11. Joan M. Ferrante, Woman as Image in Medieval Lietrature (New York: Columbia University Press) 1975, pp.107-8

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 10 May 2010. | Updated: 15 Nov 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.