Michelangelo and his 3 Pietàs, or are they??
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
Most of you have heard of, or likely even seen, Michelangelo's classic Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Some of you may have seen his "Pietà" in Milan. But likely few of you are familiar with, yet, another "Pietà" of his, in Florence. Yes, Michelangelo carved THREE Pietàs and they are each located in one of the three main cities of Italy. Truth be told, I have been to all three of those cities a few times each, and I still haven't seen the one in Florence, because when I was there I was simply ignorant of its existence. So in this blog, I would like to open YOUR eyes and YOUR mind to these three spectacular Michelangelo sculptures, so that when you find yourself in one of those Italian cities, you can seek them out and see them for yourself. Interestingly they were done at three different times of his life and the transformation of his message is fascinating!
Pietà, meaning pity or compassion, is the term that is applied in biblical art to the scene of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, on her lap subsequent to his crucifixion. This particular scene is never actually described in the Gospels but had evolved over the centuries as the Christian stories and Christian art developed. Interestingly, of the four Gospels, only John's account even references the presence of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion site. That aside, the artistic image that developed of this scene is traditionally a triangular composition with the Virgin Mary holding her dead adult son in her lap, always with Jesus' head to Mary's right side. This scene was artistically replicated throughout the centuries, particularly during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. No doubt, Michelangelo was very familiar with this representation when he was sculpting in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
Michelangelo's First Pietà
This is Michelangelo's first pietà (c. 1498-1500) and is the one that is most familiar and recognizable. It is currently located in the first chapel on the right, upon entering St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. Hence, also referred to as his 'Roman Pietà.' Michelangelo sculpted it from what he considered "the most perfect block of Carrara marble he ever used," at his young age of 24. This spectacular high Renaissance sculpture was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, to decorate a side chapel, the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, in the OLD St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was also intended to be a funerary monument for the French Cardinal, meant to evoke pity and piety. This commission propelled Michelangelo into interminable fame. While sculpted in the classic Greek style, a close inspection of the figures reveals an illusion. The proportion of the figures relative to each other is not natural. The Virgin Mary's body is significantly larger than that of her adult son, Jesus. If both were standing, she would tower over him. This is evident in the width of her shoulders and chest and the size of her legs and lap. He incorporated extensive draping of the fabric to facilitate the illusion (and no doubt, to show off his skills!) Michelangelo likely created the illusion to allow for a less awkward and more graceful visual representation of Mary holding her adult son. Prior to Michaelangelo's pietà, the few Italian pietàs that existed utilized St. John holding Jesus' head and Mary Magdalene holding Jesus' feet to remedy the awkward appearance of a large adult body on the Virgin Mary's small frame.
Also in Michelangelo's masterpiece, Mary's face looks far too young to be the mother of a roughly 33 yo man. Representing Mary perpetually young, however, was common in biblical art of that time, perhaps to represent her ageless purity and to reflect her internal beauty. Her face appears sad, with a graceful peace and acceptance of his death, but doesn't appear grief-stricken. The pure and tender moment between the mother and her son elicits sorrow and compassion in the viewers.
The folding and draping of the fabric, the highly polished finish of the marble, the very naturalistic poses, and the carved anatomic details are exquisite. They are characteristic of classic Greek sculpture which was the style that was "reborn" during the high Italian Renaissance. Another noteworthy detail of this piece is that it is the only work of Michelangelo's in which he signed his name. He was alive long enough to see visitors admire his Pietà as it basked in fame. When he overheard that his work was being credited to his competitors, he took his chisel and engraved his name on the sash across Mary's chest.
Michelangelo's Bandini Pietà
This is Michelangelo's second pietà, his 'Florentine Pietà', also called 'The Deposition.' It is not a classic pietà as it incorporates four figures (not solely the Virgin Mary and Jesus) and actually appears as if Christ's body was just removed from the cross, hence 'The Deposition.' The woman on the left is Mary Magdalene, the woman on the right is the Virgin Mary and the male figure in the center is either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus. Again, this moment is not described in the bible, as ALL of the Gospels refer to only Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for permission and then removing Jesus' body from the cross. Only in the Gospel of John is Nicodemus mentioned as having accompanied Joseph of Arimathea. The women are never mentioned as being involved in The Deposition. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful visual configuration of a sorrowful moment involving the key individuals of Jesus' passion.
Michelangelo began carving this piece in 1547 at his ripe age of 72. This was NOT a COMMISSIONED sculpture. According to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, his contemporary and friend, Michelangelo was intending it for decoration of his OWN tomb in the Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Rome. Interestingly, perhaps because he intended it for his own tomb, he carved his self-portrait into the face of the center male figure, Nicodemus or Joseph.
In 1555, after having worked on this sculpture for eight years and still unfinished, for whatever reason, Michelangelo felt unhappy with it. One evening in a fit of rage, he mutilated it and dismembered several limbs from the sculpture. He then gave the unfinished work to a friend. Eventually, it was sold to Francesco Bandini, the Archbishop of Sienna. This is why it is also called the 'Bandini Pietà.' The Archbishop then hired an apprentice sculptor name Tiberio Calcagni to restore and complete the piece. Calcagni was able to improve the hammer damage and re-attach most of the broken parts, with the exception of Christs' left leg.
Today The Deposition resides in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, which is the museum dedicated to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and has nothing to do with opera.
Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà
This is Michelangelo's third and final pietà, currently displayed in its own room in the Sforza Castle in Milan. This was the sculpture that Michelangelo began at the age of 77 in 1552 and worked on for a year until 1553. He then took a break from it to focus more time on his Deposition, his 2nd "pietà", which was still ongoing. However, after he destroyed his Deposition, he returned his attention to this third pietà in 1555 and worked on this until his dying days in 1564.
It is obvious that this piece was worked on in two stages. Michelangelo's initial stage (1552-1553) appears to have been progressing as yet another polished Renaissance sculpture embodying classical Greek style. It seems that he initially intended to create a more robust and sturdy Jesus figure. This can be inferred by the remnant polished legs of Jesus and the remnant disarticulated polished right arm of Jesus; all retained from his initial design. For unknown reasons, Michelangelo aborted that original plan and decided to switch gears. His creative vision clearly changed, causing him to rework his sculpture to convey a different message. It is known that near the end of his life he became more spiritual and perhaps he wanted to create a more ethereal or transcendental representation of Christ's passion. It appears that during the second stage (1555-1564) of this project, he chiseled away at Christ's upper body while retaining Christ's original legs from the first stage. The re-worked upper body is slender and ill-defined, devoid of musculature, and anatomic detail. Jesus' facial features and beard are blurred but can be subtlely distinguished. Chisel marks are prominent in the raw unpolished marble. The upper body of Jesus, as well as Mary behind him, resemble the elongated and attenuated figures observed in Gothic sculptures, quite unlike the idealized figures of the Renaissance style. Perhaps this was Michelangelo's way of conveying a deeper spirituality, for Gothic art during the Middle Ages corresponded to a time of greater spirituality in the Church.
To me, this is by far Michelangelo's most interesting sculpture, his spiritual testament. While referred to as a pietà because of the grouping of the Virgin Mary and Jesus figures, it is certainly not classic in form. Both figures are upright and vertical. Mary is standing on a ledge or stone riser behind Jesus and is leaning forward resting on Him. Jesus appears standing, almost rising upward from the ground, as his right foot appears lifted with only his toes maintaining contact with the ground. This is not the posture of the dead weight of a corpse being pulled to the ground by gravity. Mary is not in a stance conducive to holding up the dead weight of an adult male with her hand resting on top of his left shoulder and her posture leaning forward with her weight on Him. Both of Jesus' arms are reaching backward as if He is supporting his anguished, grieving mother on his back; perhaps representing how His spirit comforted Mary in her loss. To me, the totality of this composition is more suggestive of either Jesus' Resurrection or Ascension, an interpretation harmonious with the transcendental quality of the carved figures.
After Michelangelo died, this sculpture was found in his home in Rome. Thereafter they lost track of it until it turned up in the home of the Marquis Giuseppe Rondinini (correctly spelled with an 'i'), a well-known art collector in Rome. Hence the name 'Rondanini Pietá.'
While we don't know what Michelangelo intended with his initial design, he clearly had a change of vision and message. To attempt to understand this piece it is important to view it circumferentially, 360 degrees. Fortunately for us, it is displayed in the Sforza Castle in a way where we can do exactly that! Viewing it from the various angles lends amazing insight into trying to interpret Michelangelo's intent.
If you already had the opportunity to see any, or all, of these "Pietàs" then you are certainly one of the lucky ones! If you have not, then I encourage you to keep a mental note of the existence of these three sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti. When you find yourself in Rome, Florence or Milan, seek them out, for they are priceless treasures not to be missed.