Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Michelangelo's Pieta`s. How did age and life experience impact his work?

Donna Antonucci
Michelangelo's first Pieta! completed when he was just 23.

From looking at the number of reads of my posts, it seems my readers like my pieces on history.  My piece on the Tomba Dei Medici is one of my best read post so I thought I would pass on another from my days studying art history in Florence.

Michelangelo is my favorite artist from the Renaissance.  Many love Leonardo but I see him much more as a scientist than Michelangelo.  Michelangelo's work reaches from Renaissance to Baroque to Abstract centuries before his time, for me, makes him the ultimate master.

One of the things that marked me forever was looking at his Pieta` in San Pietro and looking at it against his other Pieta`, particularly his last Pieta` which sits in the Castello Sforzesco, Milano, Italy.

The most famous Pieta` is his first  -  (1498–1499) is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.  The statue was commissioned for the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who was a representative in Rome. The statue was made for the cardinal's funeral monument, but was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right as one enters the basilica, in the 18th century.

It is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed.  The piece shows Mary holding her son with one arm, but the other hand is lifted heavenward. She holds her child and mourns for him, but simultaneously offers him back to his Father above. In Luke chapter 7, when the boy is raised to life, the text says, “He gave him to his mother.”

This Pieta` was completed when he was only 23 years old.  It's a beautiful piece of work and revolutionary in its time for the realism and accuracy but it does lack what comes with life experience.  Mary's face lacks the pain that any mother would feel losing a child. The body of Christ does not show the anguish of what he endured.

Donna Antonucci

This next Pieta` was started by Michelangelo  when he was 72.  He was physically more fit than when he began the last Pieta` but had all of life's experience behind him. 

Michelangelo created this unfinished and broken Pietà between 1547 and 1555. The Pietà was meant for Michelangelo's own tomb, but legend has it that in a fit of frustration (he claimed that the marble was unsuitable), Michelangelo attempted to destroy the work and was stopped by his pupils.

Look at the anguish of Christ's body.

The theme of this Pietà is much changed from Michelangelo's earlier version, for this work focuses on the relentless force of death that draws Christ down with a will that the human figures are powerless to resist. The three figures present are Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea (often also identified as Nicodemus), and the Virgin. As a group, the figures are so compelling that most visitors do not notice that Christ is missing a leg.

Michelangelo chose the figure of the older man, Joseph of Arimathea, in which to depict his own features, but this calm, compassionate portrayal is far removed from his violent and anguished self-portrait in Last Judgment.

The head of Christ, in contrast to that of the 1498-1499 Pietà, is being cradled not by the Virgin but by Michelangelo's own incarnation of himself. Michelangelo is careful to focus Joseph's energies on the strength and tenderness with which the Savior should be treated in death.


Donna Antonucci


Now look at the Pieta` ai Rondanini.  This Pieta` was started when Michelangelo was 80 years old.

The Rondanini Pietà is a marble sculpture that Michelangelo worked on from the 1550s until the last days of his life, in 1564. It is housed in the Castello Sforzesco in Milano. His final sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà revisited the theme of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of the dead Christ, which he had first explored in his Pietà of 1499. Like his late series of drawings of the Crucifixion and the sculpture of the Deposition of Christ intended for his own tomb, it was produced at a time when Michelangelo's sense of his own mortality (and with it his spirituality) was growing.

The Rondanini Pietà was begun before the Deposition, although in his dying days Michelangelo hacked at the marble block until only the dismembered right arm of Christ survived from the sculpture as originally conceived. The spectral, waif-like Virgin and Christ are a departure from the idealised figures that exemplified the sculptor's earlier style, and have been said to bear more of a resemblance to the attenuated figures of Gothic sculpture than those of the Renaissance.

When viewing the sculpture from certain rear angles, it looks as if Jesus is holding Mary up with his back, instead of Mary cradling Jesus. It is said that Michelangelo carefully crafted it this way to represent how Jesus's spirit might actually have been comforting Mary in her loss.

Michelangelo worked on this piece up until 6 days before his death at the age of 89.  

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