Another Flaw in the Pietà?

People said the Virgin of Michelangelo’s Pietà was much too young. Michelangelo explained that she was so young because her purity kept her from aging. He had made a girl’s face intentionally.

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

Those people overlooked another anomaly: the difference in scale between the Virgin and the Christ lying across her knees.
Michelangelo must have begun with a fascination for the cross design—the Virgin vertical, Christ horizontal. But he saw that the Virgin’s narrow body did not have enough mass, even with all the drapery, to fill out the areas left and right of Christ’s body if it was going to lie completely lengthwise in her lap. He had no choice but to widen her body and hide its gigantic size as he could. And to reduce in scale the body of Jesus, which is perfect according to its own laws but much too small—petit, doll-like—by comparison with the Virgin’s.
Stand the two figures up and see which is bigger. See how wide the Virgin’s shoulders are. Compare her hands with those of Jesus. What about that huge pillar (the Virgin’s leg) that supports the “little” Jesus?

Of course, that this is not at once noticeable is due to Michelangelo’s genius. He was able to put the two figures together just as he wanted them and to make them believable. How did he do that?

The aesthetic geometry of the group is rock-solid. At the slightest weakness in that geometry, that structure, the critic would begin to pick away. But here there is none and he relaxes.

And the folds of the Virgin’s robe, whose purpose was initially to fill in the superfluous space, became everywhere so complex, so surprising and beautiful, that they make the grouchy critic forget what he was going to object to (the Virgin’s size). He gets lost at the fair.

“Fair”? But isn’t the subject a sad one? Yes; and that is the greatest achievement. “It is of such great and rare beauty,” says the biographer Condivi, “that no one sees it who is not moved to pity.” The mood comes across—a mood of silence, sadness, awe. Beauty isn’t of course necessary to provoke pity. Ugliness does that too, and better. And beauty on its own, with no apparent sentimental direction, can move to tears. But here it was made to serve feeling, to make the contemplation of pity more tolerable and more rational.


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15 Responses to Another Flaw in the Pietà?

  1. erikatakacs says:

    The Pieta is my favourite work of his, and as a woman and a mom, I see another aspect to the difference in proportions. In a son’s mind the mother figure is carved in as larger than life. In a mother’s mind a son will always be a son, someone to cradle if not else in her thought. I don’t know if this makes sense, hard to put it in words. He did an amazing job at hiding, an almost impossible task; but people’s perception of mother-son love might have helped him as well. Still, that doesn’t take away any ofhis genius, but rather adds to it in my opinion.
    Erika: I think that’s a beautiful idea and one that might justify the strange mix of proportions. It is not farther-fetched than Michelangelo’s explanation for why the Virgin mother looks like a girl. Maybe he should have thought of it. But I can’t believe he DID. Yet I don’t know how he meant to explain the anomaly. Neither Vasari nor Condivi mentions it. Could it be that no one ever said anything?

  2. wrjones says:

    I never thought of the scale of the figures, just enjoyed the beauty. Of course, the very next person who mentions this piece will get an ear full of “MY” knowledge.
    Well, Bill, I hope you go on enjoying the beauty. I always wonder whether I SHOULD point out so-called defects in works that people like. Maybe some of those people won’t be able to swallow them and will never again love the statue, which would be a terrible thing to happen and for me to be responsible for. My aim is always to make them look once more at works they just take for granted and can’t see with new eyes anymore. But of course I want them to admire the works more and to learn from them. None of those masterpieces was made with a magic wand. There were problems everywhere.

  3. iondanu says:

    There is a beautiful song by Leonard Cohen in which there one beautiful verse: “there is a crack in everything/ that’s where the light come in/…

    Thanks, Danu. I don’t know that song. It IS a great line.

  4. Rags35 says:

    I didn’t know that purity keeps them ladies from aging, but now I know whey they all need those face lifts. Jeez! However, I don’t mean to spoil all the fun or question the dogma, but have you ever seen a photo of old Mother Teresa? Ever seen a more wrinkled face? And wait till you meet my grandmother. Sir, I think your theory sucks.
    Mary was uniquely pure because, according to Church teaching, she was born without the stain of Original Sin, Rags. If you believe that–and there were few who did not in Renaissance Italy–Michelangelo’s theory couldn’t easily be scoffed at.

  5. wrjones says:

    Great analysis, Erika.

    I like that line as well, Danu.

  6. erikatakacs says:

    Thank you, Swallows, and Bill.

  7. cwm says:

    This may be too similar to what erikatakacs has already suggested. Or too obvious (I’m not well versed in art history). But I wonder whether the odd proportions may have been influenced by the iconic image of Madonna and Child, of which innumerable examples predate Michaelangelo by as much as a millenium?
    Michelangelo didn’t take those old Madonnas for models, cwm; he considered most of them childish, clumsy, too conceptual. Those old artists drew the way children draw–from an idea–and like children they copied from each other. Their Virgins were more like symbols than real women.The Renaissance started when artists began to copy from nature.

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  9. Warren vazquez says:

    Werner herzog made some interesting comments about being overly pedantic in art, citing this piece. Have you heard his thoughts on the subject?

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  11. The disproportionate size of the Mother in relation to her Son in the pieta is deliberate on the part of the sculptor. It’s meant to portray the very nature of “mother and child” in which the love and the protective nature of the mother is paramount even though her adult child has died. In her mind she is cradling her child in a love that is larger than life, an all encompassing embrace much larger than her child’s physical body. He is again her child in all his smallness and vulnerability and she is his refuge.

  12. magister uitgeverij says:

    Did nobody think of the well kept secret between artists that Jesus was married to Maria Magdalena? Da Vinci’s fresco in Milano of the last meal shows her between the 12 disciples beside Jesus. I see in the Piéta a lover who holds her dead beloved. I have been there and I cried before the gate. Ewout

    • 100swallows says:

      Magister: Hey, what’s this about the “well-kept secret between artists” that “Jesus was married to Maria Magdalena”? What’s your source? And in the Last Supper I only count twelve figures with Jesus. Where’s Maria? Perhaps you mean the boy John, Jesus’ favorite, who was traditionally depicted as younger than the others. It’s true that the Pietá Virgin is unbelievably young, but you would have to show me some other reason to assert that she is Mary Magdalene.

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