At 21 years of age, Michelangelo made his first trip to Rome. Eager to study the great statues of antiquity and to secure important commissions, the young master from Florence was soon engaged on a work that would seal his destiny as the greatest living sculpture of his time and perhaps, all time! Michelangelo’s arrival into the Eternal City was fortunate because it coincided with an exhibition of newly unearthed sculptures and ruins of antiquity. These new found classical sculptures, nude and Herculean in proportion, celebrated the ideals of moral virtue, physical beauty, and truth. The discovery of these pieces represented a crucial bridge from the Gothic works of the middle Ages to the inspired sculpture and painting of the early Renaissance.
A statue was commissioned for the tomb in St. Peters of the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who was a representative in Rome. According to the formal agreement, the Pieta` was to be “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.” Michelangelo was neither daunted nor intimated by such a request and upon its completion the world declared that Michelangelo’s Pieta ‘surpassed not only the sculptures of his contemporaries but even those of the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves; the standards by which all art was judged.’
The lamentation of Christ was a theme popular in Northern European art since the fourteenth century and it traditionally focused on the portrayal of pain through the two figures of Mary and Jesus. But Michelangelo’s interpretation of Mary holding a dead Christ in her arms is remarkable in its devotion to the Renaissance Humanist ideals of physical perfection and beauty. Michelangelo boldly celebrated the intimacy and majesty of a single moment frozen in time, choosing to portray Mary as a chaste and glowing young woman holding the gracefully lifeless body of the Savior across her lap. When we gaze upon this masterpiece it’s as though Mary’s outstretched left hand beckons us to share with her, the profound grief caused by the death of her son. Such a subtle and effective compositional device is even more remarkable when we remind ourselves that Michelangelo was only 24 years old when finished his Pieta.
Michelangelo worked the piece in the round, using a drill for speed and achieving a highly polished sheen that made it fairly impossible to believe the sumptuously sculpted figures began as a block of cold stone. Michelangelo’s mastery of composition is evident in the unique triangular shape that conveys a stunning grandeur, and a profound knowledge of human anatomy served him well in his creation. According to Giorgio Vasari, shortly after the installation of the Pieta,
Michelangelo overheard someone remark that it was the work of another sculptor, Cristoforo Solari. Michelangelo then carved MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made it) on the sash running across Mary’s breast!
Michelangelo’s Pieta is widely held as his finest work, instantly becoming one of the most revered and studied works of the Italian High Renaissance.