The Story Of The Pieta

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By Carolyn Shields

It's an image that makes us stop in our tracks: the Blessed Mother cradling her son, our Crucified Lord. She once swaddled Him to her breasts, and now she holds His cold body. There's been different takes on this raw and intimate moment between mother and Son, but Michelangelo's depiction never ceases to draw us in. Few of us, however, know the story behind it.

It was commissioned by Jean de Billheres, a French cardinal, for his funeral in the late 1400s. At this time, statues were mostly created solely for the use of tombs (until Bernini dramatically changed that nearly a hundred years later). But Jean de Billheres gave strict orders that this piece be something unforgettable...and it is, so much so that it has overshadowed its own patron. Michelangelo obviously rose to the challenge, and doing so with only one single slab of marble.

It took him only one year and get this, he was just twenty-four years old. He didn't even originally sign it until someone began to mistake the artist for someone else in front of Michelangelo. But he stood silent until in the middle of the night, he chiseled his name across the Blessed Mother's chest, something he actually regretted and never did again.

As he reached the door of the chapel and turned back for a last look, he saw that the Virgin too was sad and lonely; the most alone human being God ever put on earth.
— Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy

The sculpture itself is formed like a pyramid or a triangle. Some have criticized Mary's youth, as well as her seemingly too small head, but Michelangelo knew proportions and some realism had to go out the window if he were to sculpt her cradling her son. To compromise with her huge form, he added flowing robes to create gentleness and soft movement.

Since the 1600s, the Pieta has sat peacefully in the Vatican except for a violent acting out by a geologist from Hungary who, on Pentecost Sunday 1972, leaped over its railing and lashed out at the statue, knocking off Mary's left arm, the tip of her nose, and damaging her cheek and left eye after twelve blows. The desecration became a point of debate then, with some scholars claiming that it must be restored and others saying it shows the violence of our modern era. In the end, after ten months of work, the statue was totally restored. And it was during this restoration that they actually discovered a discrete 'M' carved into Mary's palm.

It's so worth it this Lent to take some time and meditate on this image. It's heartbreaking, tragic, sick, but Michelangelo purposely worked on making it an image of hope: of peace, abandonment, softness, and of course, Love.