Monday, February 16, 2009

Michelangelo's Pieta

A passing reference in a book I am reading reminded me today of one of the most arresting works of art that I have ever seen, Michelangelo's Pieta. We saw it last April while in Italy, celebrating our 25th anniversary.

I have seen a lot of famous art in my life, and one of the blessings of our marriage is that Nancy and I both enjoy art museums and art history, as well as creating our own art.

Yet, nothing I had ever previously seen or read or thought I knew about Michelangelo and his legendary body of work prepared me for the exceeding beauty, the grandeur, the grace, and the power of this particular statue.

Located in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, this statue of Jesus' battered and lifeless body, cradled in the arms of his mother, Mary, simply must be seen to be appreciated. It is one of the few works that commands one's complete rapt attention when in it's presence. This is, of course, due in part to the solemnity of the subject and also to the majesty of its representation, hewn from stone and meticulously polished by the hand of a supremely gifted artisan. Far more than a mere religious icon, which, in Rome, number in the millions and towards which I am relatively inurred, I was taken aback by the unexpected wave of emotion and introspection that this image inspired.

Completed by Michelangelo in 1499, there are several interesting things about this statue's design. It has been noted that some of the body proportions of the two figures are not "right, " strictly speaking, due to the inherent difficulty of portraying a fully grown man splayed limply across the lap of a woman. Much like a painter, the artist seemed to understand that adjustments needed to be made so that , from the perspective of the viewer some distance away, the image would appear perfectly normal and natural. The overall shape of the sculpture is pyramidic, with the thick folds of Mary's clothing largely creating the necessary mass to balance the image and support it's overall effect.

While the subject of the Savior's mother in grief at the death of her Son was by no means unique, Michelangelo's depiction of Mary differed significantly from those that had come before. The image of Mary is clearly that of the serene, young, teenage virgin mother, not the grief-stricken, mature, 45-ish woman that she certainly was at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. There are a number of theoretical explanations for this, but the one I find the most compelling posits that Michelangelo is intentionally bridging Christ's birth to His death in this single image. The young virgin mother sees in her arms the precious little newborn baby whose selfless life will eventually lead Him to the fulfillment of prophecy at Golgotha. At the same time, we who view this scene are actually seeing the grim future, which is at once the greatest of victories, draped in sorrow and loss.

This statue has an interesting history, too, a summary of which can be read here.

Finally, if you have never travelled abroad or are intimidated by the idea or cost of going to a faraway country, I encourage you to reconsider. It is far easier and much less expensive than most people think and the rewards are incalculable. It will change forever the way you look at the world.

Btw, the top pic is mine. The bottom one is shamelesly purloined from Wikipedia.


Jannie Funster said...

We do have The Blanton, a wonderful respite here in Austin. I've been twice but must go back sans child, for a more "quiet," adn no doubt personally fulfilling experience.

Love art too!

kelli said...

Wow!!! So cool that you were able to see that.
We just went to the Art Institute (in Chicago) yesterday and standing in front of those paintings you've heard of all your life... wow. I got goosebumps!
(And, can I admit that I just today got the pun of your blog name? I'm embarrassed it took me so long, but thought you'd want to know I got a laugh from it!)

Barry Pike said...

Thanks for stopping by, ladies.

The thing is, I've often felt that seeing some great artwork is more about the hype or the mystique. The backstory of the work, or sometimes the artist's biography colors, sometmes obscures, whatever true inherent beauty or power may exist in the work itself.

With the Pieta, in particular, and, in fact, much of the Vatican Art Museum, this is simply not the case. And, honestly, the Sistine Chapel really IS even MORE beautiful and fascinating than it is cracked up to be.

I have some issues with religious art and iconography, but I was really undone by some of the powerful things I saw in Rome.

You need to go see it to believe it.