The Pietà (1499) by Michelangelo is a marble sculpture in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, the first of a number of works of the same theme by the artist. 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.
This famous work of art depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. The theme is of Northern origin, popular by that time in France but not yet in Italy. Michelangelo's interpretation of the Pietà is unique to the precedents. It is an important work as it balances the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism. The statue is one of the most highly finished works by Michelangelo.
The structure is pyramidal, and the vertex coincides with Mary's head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of the Virgin's dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman's lap. Much of the Virgin's body is concealed by her monumental drapery, and the relationship of the figures appears quite natural.
The marks of the Crucifixion are limited to very small nail marks and an indication of the wound in Jesus' side.
The Madonna is represented as being very young, and about this peculiarity there are different interpretations. One is that her youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity, as Michelangelo himself said to his biographer and fellow sculptor Ascanio Condivi:
Another explanation suggests that Michelangelo's treatment of the subject was influenced by his passion for Dante's Divina Commedia: so well-acquainted was he with the work that when he went to Bologna he paid for hospitality by reciting verses from it. In Paradiso (cantica 33 of the poem) Saint Bernard, in a prayer for the Virgin Mary, says "Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio" (Virgin mother, daughter of your son). This is said because, being that Christ is one of the three figures of Trinity, Mary would be his daughter, but it is also she who bore him.
A third interpretation is that suggested by Condivi shortly after the passage quoted above: simply that "such freshness and flower of youth, besides being maintained in by natural means, were assisted by act of God".
Yet another exposition posits that the viewer is actually looking at an image of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Mary's youthful appearance and apparently serene facial expression, coupled with the position of the arms could suggest that she is seeing her child, while the viewer is seeing an image of the future.
Interpreting the sculpture in terms of its name, one might trace the origin: "The duty children owed their parents, termed pietas, was associated by Romans with the duty humans owed their gods" (James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, Downers Grove, Ill. InterVarsity Press, 1999).
While there was a precedent for painted depictions of the Virgin grieving over the dead Christ in Florentine art, the subject appears to have been novel to Italian sculpture. There was, however, a tradition of sculptured pietàs in Northern art, particularly in Germany, Poland and the Cardinal's native France. In addition, the church of San Domenico in Bologna had a German sculpted pietà. This has led some to believe that the donor had these statues in mind when the work was commissioned.
The Pietà's first home was the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, a Roman mausoleum near the south transept of St. Peter's, which the Cardinal chose as his funerary chapel. The chapel was later demolished by Bramante during his rebuilding of the basilica. According to Giorgio Vasari, shortly after the installation of his Pietà Michelangelo overheard someone remark that it was the work of another sculptor, Cristoforo Solari. Michelangelo then carved MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made it) on the sash running across Mary's breast. It was the only work he ever signed. He later regretted his outburst of pride and swore never to sign another work of his hands.
In subsequent years the Pietà sustained much damage. Four fingers on the Virgin's left hand, broken during a move, were restored in 1736 by Giuseppe Lirioni and scholars are divided as to whether the restorer took liberties to make the gesture more 'rhetorical'. The most substantial damage occurred on May 21, 1972 (Pentecost Sunday) when a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the Virgin with a geologist's hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ."
After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter's, just to the right of the entrance, between the Holy door and the altar of Saint Sebastian, and is now protected by a bullet-proof acrylic glass panel.