Michelangelo and the Pietà
Michelangelo is widely considered the greatest artistic genius that ever lived — a man whose name has become synonymous with the word “masterpiece.” He was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni at Caprese, Italy and grew up in Florence, home of the Italian High Renaissance. It was here that he received his education under the patronage of the de Medici family. His works include the world famous Pieta, David and the breathtaking frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
As an artist he was unmatched, the creator of works of sublime beauty that express the full breadth of the human condition. He left immortal works in sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry. Through this vast and multifaceted body of artistic achievement, Michelangelo made an indelible imprint on the Western imagination. No other artist has ever attained such a high level of mastery in all of these four areas of artistic endeavor.
Although the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Vatican) are probably the best known of his works today, the artist thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, once avowing that he drank in with his wet-nurses’ milk, the love of the stone cutters’ tools. Michelangelo worked in marble sculpture all his life and in the other arts only at certain periods.
He was a deeply spiritual man and believed that his art was divinely inspired. To Michelangelo, the artist’s tools and his stone are instruments of the divine will and the creative process an aspect of salvation. The concept of genius as divine inspiration, a superhuman power granted to a few rare individuals and acting through them, is nowhere more fully exemplified than in his life and work. The theory that guided Michelangelo’s hand appears in his poetry:
Every beauty which is seen here below by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come…
My eyes longing for beautiful things together with my soul longing for salvation have no other power to ascend to heaven than the contemplation of beautiful things.
His contemporaries spoke about the man and his works with one word: “terribilita,” meaning awesome. There has never been a more literally awesome artist than Michelangelo: awesome in the scope of his imagination and awesome in the awareness of the significance – the spiritual significance – of beauty. Beauty was to him divine; one of the ways in which God communicated Himself to humanity. The absolute perfection of his artistic execution is unsurpassed by any other artist that the world has ever known and explains why his work is so treasured.
THE SEARCH FOR GOD IN BEAUTY AND BEAUTY IN GOD
Michelangelo’s search for God, whose sublime purpose he saw revealed in the beauty of the human form and his disinterest in any subject save the human form, which he held to be the supreme vehicle of expression, led him to an intense and exhaustive study of the human body. His belief that nothing worth preserving could be done without genius was attended by the conviction that nothing could be done without persevering study. So Michelangelo studied the human form. He studied the ancient sculptors who knew how to represent the beautiful human body in motion, with all its muscles and sinews. However, he was not content with learning the laws of anatomy secondhand. He made his own research into human anatomy, dissected bodies and drew from models until the human figure did not seem to hold any secrets for him. He strove with an incredible singleness of purpose to master this one problem and master it fully until it was rumored that this young artist not only equaled the renowned masters of classical antiquity but actually surpassed them.
At the age of twenty-three, Michelangelo was commissioned by a French cardinal to create the Pietà for St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican as a tomb monument. He traveled to the marble quarries at Cararra in central Italy to select the block from which to make this large work. The choice of the stone was important because he envisioned the statue as already existing within the marble, needing only to be “set free” from it. It was sculpted from 1498-1500 and established Michelangelo instantly as the greatest sculptor of his time. The word Pieta means pity from the Greek word for “compassion” or “pity” and refers not, as often presumed to this specific work (Michelangelo actually did two other Pietas later in life, both of them unfinished) but to a traditional type of devotional image. The theme of Mary cradling the dead body of Christ in her lap was all but unknown in Italy before Michelangelo made it famous in this statue, but it was a staple in the repertoire of French and German sculptors and painters. Michelangelo, however, rendered the northern theme in a way never before attempted or accomplished.
Georgio Vasari, The great art historian wrote:
“It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor, no matter how brilliant, ever to surpass the grace or design of this work, or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have reduced to perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Michelangelo put in to this work so much love and effort (something that he never did again), that he left his name written across the sash over Our Lady’s breast.”