The Pietà Michelangelo Destroyed 1

The first thing you notice—for the eye always ungraciously seeks out irregularity, imperfection—is that troublingly thin and graceless leg at the bottom of the group.

The Duomo Pietà or (Deposition) c. 155o       226 cm (89 in),  in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Fl0rence
This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license here.

It bothers for three reasons: one, it is pitifully thin.
The greatest of Michelangelo’s figures have robust limbs. He exaggerated their breadth, their strength, and their complexity in order to magnify and exploit their beauty. That exaggerated robustness is the hallmark of his style—it is what the world means by “a Michelangelo”. The arms of this very Duomo Pietà are easily recognizable as Michelangelo’s—no one else could make them so beautiful.

And that is why the folded leg—so meagre, so stick-like—surprises and disappoints. It is the leg of an old man and gives the poor Christ a paralytic look. Learning that Michelangelo was a depressed old man when he sculpted this Christ, one wonders, meanly, if he hadn’t used his own age-withered leg as a model (until one remembers that the master knew a leg by heart and didn’t need to refer to his own). How could he have sculpted such a trivial leg for this wonderful Christ? Did his aesthetic judgment black out?

That leg bothers—two—because it is folded at such a shockingly graceless right angle.
Curves, not angles, are the stuff of beauty. Some angles are unavoidable, of course; but you will see no other by Michelangelo with such a prominent role in the general design. You would have expected the master to ease the eye away from that ugly angle with a swirl of cloth or the trunk of a tree. See how the Magdalene’s curved arm relieves the stiffness of Christ’s thigh and closes a circle around the central parts of the group. But the lower half of the leg stands there very, very nakedly and calls away from the beauty of the top half of the group.

And, finally—three—the leg offends because it doesn’t seem to support the weight of Christ’s body, which is about to drop to the ground in spite of all the efforts of the three figures around it. The composition is top-heavy: all the interest of the sculptural group is four feet off the ground.

At the bottom of any statue you expect to see some strong support for it. It has to deal with both real gravity (the stone’s) and the fictional gravity of the composition. Here the measures against the fictional gravity are accounted for: Nicodemus is holding Christ up. The body rests partly on the Virgin’s lap. The other Mary on Christ’s right, though she takes none of its weight, is there to steady the body should it fall her way. There is no weight at all on that folded right leg.
And yet all that apparent support doesn’t convince. Somehow, we aren’t willing to play along so far as to trust Nicodemus’s muscles. Christ’s body is three feet in the air and sliding off the Madonna’s lap; and the only real support we see for it is that skinny leg. And it has just buckled.

Michelangelo gave a whole list of reasons for destroying his statue but the ugly leg wasn’t one of them. So do we have to conclude that he approved of it? It looks finished; and in any case, further work on it would not have made it better, given its defects. And—by the way—where is the other leg, the one Michelangelo took away; and where did it belong on the statue?

Read the answers to these questions in The Pietà Michelangelo Destroyed 2


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8 Responses to The Pietà Michelangelo Destroyed 1

  1. erikatakacs says:

    I think he miscalculated the proportions. He tried to make up for it with the thin, twisted leg. It definitely helps. Had he carved it robust as his body and arms, the flaw would have been obvious even to the untrained eye. The leg would have looked too short. It looks as though he was carving from top down, yes? Is that what caused the problem? What do you think, Swallows? And what reasons did he mention for destroying it?

    That is a very good idea, Erika. Looking again at the statue now, I was surprised to see how little plinth there is. It looks like they had to glue on a marble slab underneath to reinforce the figure, even aesthetically. It seems hard to imagine that an expert like Mike would misjudge the height of his statue, but he wasn’t divine, after all. I suspect he made the mistake the other way in the Medici Madonna. There he gave her too much of a seat–don’t you think? Anyway, read today’s post about the little wax model for this Pietà and see what you think.

  2. wrjones says:

    Wow, painting is so much easier. To carve away for months only to discover there is a compositional flaw would be mental torture.

    Maybe this was the first known case of polio.

  3. Rags35 says:

    @ Erikatakacs:

    But according to the swallows’ presentation, it is not just that the leg is so terribly thin, but that it is placed at such an angle. I am not an artist and have never thought about these things, but to me it also looks as if that leg were too prominent and almost coming forward.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Your analysis is impressive. To me the withered leg and its contorted position convey the sense that Christ is dead. His chest and arms are still beautiful but the leg is the leg of a disintegrating corpse. His death lasted only from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, but this grotesque feature reminds us that the death was real, while it lasted the same as the death suffered by other men.

  5. Rags35 says:

    @ Anonymous:

    That’s a great interpretation you’ve come up with! I’m not much of a believer, but it’s easy to see that this is religious art. It’s a drag to watch all those art critics fake it and act as if they did not know it.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Anonymous: I agree with Rags35 that yours is a fine interpretation. Michelangelo was deeply religious and he might have liked it himself. However, for the reasons I will give in a future post, I don’t think he thought this way. A surviving wax model shows us how the figure should have looked.

  7. iondanu says:

    I can understand that leg, swallows (not that I`m smarter or more special)… The direction of that leg is a perfect `rappel` of Christ`s left arm! It makes the main compositional scheme… What I cannot understand is where (the heck) did the other leg dissapeared? and why the woman who sustain him under the arm is so disproportionately SMALL?

    See my latest post, Danu. Michelangelo himself cut off the left leg. Vasari (?) says he had it around in the shop for quite a while. And as for the little Mary, I think Cacagni cut her down. It looks like he should have added just where he took away (her shoulders, for example, no?). The lower half of her looks like the Mary in the model.

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