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Sources for Pieta -see footnotes below

In this a Michelangelo masterpiece.  Mary holds her dead son in her lap, lifeless after his Crucification. This piece was one of the first Pieta’s to be carved.

Pieta is a Christian theme, Pieta meaning ‘mercy’ or ‘pity.

pieta home photo - Copy.jfif


Pieta is an ancient concept belonging to the classic idea of deep respect of gods ( yes, multiple gods!) and absolute religiosity. In classic latin it is Pietas. We can find this concept in the Aenied written by latin author and poet Virgil. Aeneas has a big sense of ‘Pietas’ which is a  deep respect for the Gods and his ancestors. He also has mercy for human beings.


The sculpture was commissioned in November 1497 by a French cardinal, Jean de Bilheres – who provided Michelangelo with a marble block from Carrara for his funeral monument.  The Cardinal died in August 1499, and the statue was destined for the Chapel of Santa Patronilla, where the cardinal was buried. Twenty years later it was moved to the old Basilica of St Peters in Vatican city, where it remains today. In the Basilica it was originally over the altar of the Chapel of the Choir, it was moved  to several places, until , in 1749 Pope Benedict XIV ordered its definitive movement, together with the elliptic cottanello base , made by Francesco Borromini in 1626.


Carrera  marble sculpture measures 174 cm 195 cm.


It is striking that Mary is young and angelic at the age of the crucifixion. This is incongruous as Jesus would have been around 33 years of age, and she would have been around 50 years of age. The beautiful and delicate features would represent that of a 15 year old; her features are in stark contrast to the exuberant fabric.


The reason for this age inconsistency can be found in the catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception, which concerns the conception of Mary by her mother Anna, rather than Mary’s conception of Jesus. It was believed that Mary was conceived immaculately or without a mark, that is, free from the stain of Original Sin. Being without sin, she would not have  aged and died, but appeared the same as the time she gave birth to Jesus, believed to have been around 15.  From this doctrine follows the idea of the Assumption of the Virgin –rather than growing old and dying, Mary was taken up to heaven.

Mary and the adult Jesus on her lap

Michelangelo uses the triangular shape to accentuate the virgin Mary’s clothes. This gives a realistic composition without leaving the views to  worry about the size of the lifeless Christ on her lap. Also, this means that her lap , which would necessarily be larger to accommodate his body, does not appear awkward and out of proportion.

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Michelangelo’s signature on her robe

This statue was signed by Michelangelo, on her robe, but he later regretted the vanity of this  and decided never to sign a work again.


“The Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti who made it”.

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Damage in 1972

In 1971, Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian wrote a letter to Pope Paul VI and asked to meet him for a reading of the bible. Toth, who was later confirmed as suffering a psychiatric condition attended a mass on Pentecost Sunday in May 1972. He jumped and said “I am Jesus Christ, I have risen from the dead”. He was a geologist by trade, and struck the Pieta 15 times with his geology hammer, severing Mary’s arm at the elbow, removing part of her nose and damaging an eyelid. Over 100 fragments were scattered and unfortunately some present took parts that were never recovered. The Vatican determined “integral restoration” was required – that is – using fragments and new fragments from a mould made before the damage, the statue was returned to original  as observed by the naked eye. It is now behind bullet proof glass.

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The statue is visually appealing. Mary is pure and exhibits the expression of motherly love, which as a mother is relatable. Her idealised human form represents all mothers.

Moreover, the detail in the carving, the way the fabric falls and the appeal is truly that of a  master craftsman.

Mary’s facial expression,  the serenity of Jesus in his relaxed body form as well as the  realism of flesh and fabric is exquisite.

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