The display of Michelangelo’s first contribution to St Peter’s, the Pietà, within the gigantic basilica which he himself designed much later in his remarkably long career, has long posed something of a problem.
The statue is a profoundly intimate piece of work; in its original location in the old St Peter’s, it was much closer to the floor, and one could get much closer to it. However, unlike other versions of the same motif, including the three later ones done by Michelangelo himself, this one looks forward to the Resurrection, rather than backwards to the sufferings of Christ. The graceful position of His body makes it look as if He is only sleeping, as indeed, His death is like sleep, which is to say, temporary. Where His skin is exposed, Michelangelo did the brightest polishing job of his life; we see Christ already transfigured and glorified in the Resurrection.
The Virgin Mary lets the body slide forward off Her lap, and on the right side, has let go of it. As seen in its original location, it was as if She were passing the body to the pilgrim who stood in front of it, and in this way, inviting him to share in Her grief. At the same time, looking up, one sees in Her placid face not only Her acceptance of God’s will, but also Her perfect confidence that Her Son will indeed finish the mission for which He came into the world in the first place, and rise from the dead. The viewer is thus invited to share this confidence, and associate it with his own death, and the death of his loved ones.
Since the Pietà is now displayed in a space much larger than Michelangelo intended it to be seen in, people often remark that they are surprised at how small it is, although it is actually life-size, 5’ 8” tall, and over 6 feet wide. It is simply dwarfed by the vastness of the new basilica, the largest church in world. Although one cannot, of course, actually enter the chapel of the Pietà and come up close to it, a new lighting system has been recently installed within the chapel, which changes the view of it considerably, and very much for the better.
Designed by an Italian company called iGuzzini, (the Italians are masters at artistic lighting), the new system has four different arrangements, each of which highlights the work in a different way. One places all the emphasis on the sculpture itself, reducing the illumination of rest of the chapel to a minimum; this helps the viewer to appreciate the incredibly complex artistry of the piece.
The Pietà was Michelangelo’s first public work in Rome, commissioned in 1498, when he was only 23. He knew full well that the cardinal who hired him to make it, Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, the French ambassador to the papal court, had given him a signal opportunity to show off his talent in a place where every pilgrim coming to Rome during the approaching jubilee would see it. This partly explains the astonishing intricacy of the Virgin’s robes, and details such as the folds of the mantle over her head and the deep recesses to either side of her neck. The intense polishing of Christ’s body is also seen very clearly against the darker background of the Madonna’s robes.
A second scheme, in which a very intense light shines from one side of the chapel, is far more dramatic, brightly illuminating the right side of the statue, and leaving the left side much darker. The faces of both Christ and the Virgin are seen in shadow, suggesting that He has now descended among those who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death”, while she grieves over His sufferings. The brightness is concentrated on her left arm which has let go of Him, and on Christ’s legs, where He is beginning to fall forward towards the viewer, who is invited to receive the body, and share the faith in the bodily Resurrection.
The third arrangement, and by far the brightest, involves turning on all the new lights together. As described on iGuzzini’s website, the sculpture itself becomes the light source, standing out in vivid contrast against the slightly lower illumination of the chapel. Here the orientation of the sculpture as a whole, looking forward to the Resurrection, is particularly notable. A sculptural pietà was normally displayed on the evening of Good Friday to draw the mind back in time, to consider Christ’s sufferings, and His mother’s grief over them. Michelangelo’s, however, was commissioned for the French cardinal’s tomb: it was meant to express hope in the Resurrection.
In the final lighting scheme, described as the “daily” one, the illumination is frontal, and the contrast between the various parts of the sculpture, and between the sculpture and the chapel around it, is minimised. This perhaps leaves the viewer to think more deeply about all of the various aspects of Christ’s Passion, not only what is going on at the particular moment, but what has preceded, and what will follow.
Unlike Michelangelo’s three later versions, this Pietà looks forward to the Resurrection, rather than backwards to the sufferings of Christ. The graceful position of His body makes it look as if He is only sleeping: His death is like sleep, which is to say, temporary.
Gregory DiPippo is editor of New Liturgical Movement (newliturgicalmovement.org)
This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here