The Virgin is of course too young to be the mother of the thirty-three-year old man who lies in her lap. Her face is as young and fresh as a girl’s.
Pietá (1498), Carrara marble, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome–174 cm × 195 cm [68.5 in × 76.8 in] A public domain Wikigallery photo, published here
Was this a beginner’s mistake Michelangelo made? Did he get carried away with the idea of a beautiful face and forget that the sad woman he was carving had to be fifty years old or more for the sculpture to fit the Bible story? His critics seized on this striking “defect” of the Pietà and some people laughed, feeling richer in common sense than the artist. “Why DID you do that?” Condivi asked Michelangelo once when he saw him in a good mood. Michelangelo came out with this very polished answer:
“Don’t you know that women who are chaste are much fresher than those who are not? How much more so a virgin who was never touched by even the slightest lascivious desire which might alter her body?
“Indeed, I will go further and say that this freshness and flowering of youth, apart from being preserved in her in this natural way, may also conceivably have been given divine assistance in order to prove to the world the virginity and perpetual purity of the mother. This was not necessary with the Son, in fact rather the contrary, because in order to show that the Son of God truly assumed human form as He did, and submitted to all that an ordinary man undergoes, except sin, there was no need for the divine to hold back the human, but it was necessary to let it follow its own course and order so that He would show exactly the age He was. Therefore you should not be surprised if, with this in mind, I made the Holy Virgin, mother of God, considerably younger in comparison with her Son than her age would ordinarily require, though I left the Son at His own age.”
(Condivi, Life of Michelangelo)
Condivi, in great admiration, calls this consideration worthy of a theologian, which it certainly is. It was a very astute way of shutting up critics who dared not show their skepticism at its plausibility because they risked revealing a lack of knowledge or of faith in Church doctrine (though the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not made dogma until the nineteenth century). They could counter that it isn’t virginity that makes a woman age, since nuns age the same as married women; but they had to admit that the case of the Virgin Mary was unique in that she was the only woman ever born without the stain of Original Sin. The most they could claim was that they did not believe Michelangelo actually reasoned that way before conceiving the statue or that he wasn’t the man who was qualified to teach religion to the rest of us. Who did he think he was?
In fact, Condivi seems to believe that the Master WAS qualified to teach us. “This consideration would be…. perhaps extraordinary coming from others, but not from him who God and nature formed not only to do unique work with his hands but also to be a worthy recipient of the most sublime concepts, as can be recognized not only from this, but from very many of his thoughts and writings.”
And it is possible, even probable, that Michelangelo himself believed he worked with divine inspiration; and that through this statue, this portrait of the two most important humans, he was showing the world a fact that had been revealed to him as he worked.
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Thank you for the great post, Swallows. Reading Michelangelo’s own thoughts are quite a revelation. Before I thought the Pieta was all about motherly love, now it seems to me it’s about immortality and mortality.
Erika: I wouldn’t throw out the motherly love idea completely. There are many of those mourning mothers at the foot of the cross, “weeping for themselves and their children.” Remember that haunting Mary of the Rondanini Pietá.
This sculpture presents us with the most beautiful woman M’angelo could imagine, I think. He represents her spiritual beauty by her physical beauty. Just as Raphal does in his Madonnas.