Pietas–works of art that portray typically Mary alone, holding the dead body of Jesus, are a form of devotional art. They pay homage to the suffering of Jesus and to the suffering of his mother. They are more than that. In the hands of the masters, they are an examination of the relationships between hope and despair, between God and the benighted human race, between Jesus and the church, and more. Much more. In the past few days, I’ve seen many pietas in the museums and churches of Milan, and they differ vastly, one from another.
The most famous of the pietas is probably the one sculpted by Michelangelo and now housed in St. Peter’s in Rome. In the sculpture, Mary, young and beautiful, is seated, her robes flowing out over her legs, Jesus laying across her lap in the repose of death. He looks older than she. She gently supports his still supple flesh. Her eyes are cast down, not looking at Jesus, but looking inward, still pondering all these things in her heart. It is a stunning piece. The marble seems alive.
Michelangelo was 24 when he sculpted the Rome pieta. His youth tells. The tragedy of the death of Jesus is the tragedy of youth cut short for Jesus and lasting sorrow for Mary. They remain beautiful.
Not so the Rondanini Pieta in Milan, which resides almost alone in a room furnished especially for it in the Sforza castle. It was perhaps the last piece that Michelangelo worked on, just before his death at 88. It’s an old man’s piece: unfinished, damaged, perhaps beyond repair, full of death and pain and failure, and yet, strangely moving and even hopeful. I would like to think it is the greater of the Michelangelo pietas.
When one enters the Rondanini gallery, the sculpture stands alone in the center of a large room, with only the death mask of the sculptor to accompany it. You approach it from behind. Mary and Jesus are not distinguished in the marble. They share a single back, crudely hacked in the stone.
As one comes around the right side of the piece, one sees an arm, still attached by a bit of marble, a remnant of an earlier concept for a pieta, one the master abandoned. He had not yet cut off the arm even though he had sculpted another arm for Jesus just inside the one left hanging. It’s as if Michelangelo wants us to see in the marble his tentative reaching towards a concept still not fully formed in his own mind.
From the front one’s eyes are drawn to the faces, such as they are. Jesus has almost no face at all–a blank where a face should be. And yet, in that blank, a face–the effacement of death. Mary’s face is more completely sketched in, her mouth distorted in grief, her eyes cast down, not on Jesus but on her thoughts. Again, she ponders these things in her heart, but her pondering appears to have changed, deepened in sorrow.
But it’s not just her face; it’s her hands. She is struggling to hold Jesus up. She has grasped him high with her left hand, holding him from falling forward, and his side with her right, supporting him, as if by dint of human effort she could raise him up. As if by her love she could stave off the inevitable. He seems too heavy for her.
So what is this? Is it simply an unfinished piece, a leftover of a life? Some think that Michelangelo could not have finished it. He had hacked away too much of the marble to be able to realize what he had in mind. But others think that the problem was not the marble. It was the thoughts of an old man as he came close to death.
Or is it in its disjointed beauty a statement? A statement about the power of death, first of all. This is Mary come full circle, from a young woman full of hope, hope invested in her child, to this, this sorrow. Is this last work of Michelangelo a cry of grief for all those who have lost children? Does it immortalize the grief of the parents in every age, including our own, the parents of children shot at Nickel Mines, at Sandy Hook, at Uvalde–in our streets and in our schools and in our homes?
Or is it the repentance of an old man who once saw the death of Jesus as elegant–Jesus asleep on the lap of his mother, about to wake up? Has Michelangelo at 88 arrived at a different understanding of death, at how for Mary resurrection must have seemed impossible? This is not a gnostic faith that thinks of death as a mere shadow at the beginning of a new life. This is the deep grief of humanity, the grief of all of us, caught in marble by a man who at 88 knows how brief life is.
Or, is it, as I think is true for all pietas, a statement about the relationship between Jesus and the church. Mary, the church, is trying to hold Jesus up, as the church must do in this time between cross and consummation. Until he comes again, until he is manifested before every eye as Lord. Until then, it is the task of the church to hold up the faith, to preach the resurrection, to continue to hope, to proclaim hope to a world without hope. And to do so, as Jesus warned his disciples in John 16 would be the case, against what seems the evidence.
But can you detect in the marble itself something else going on? See that it goes both ways? It’s not just Mary holding up Jesus; it’s Jesus holding up Mary. She grasps him all wrong. He would surely topple to the ground were anyone try to hold him up in that way. But there is strength still in those legs. It’s Jesus pushing up as much as Mary holding him up. Jesus and Mary, the divine and the human, God and the church locked in eternal embrace.
It’s for all those reasons and more that I think this last work of Michelangelo speaks to us still, beyond beauty towards truth.