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.