15 Things You Should Know About Michelangelo's Pietà

Stanislav Traykov, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Since its creation in 1499, Michelangelo's Pietà has inspired emotion, faith, and imitation through its elegant depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Yet few know the secrets that are still being uncovered about this centuries-old statue.

1. A French cardinal commissioned it for his own funeral. 

French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who served the church in Rome, wanted to be remembered long after he'd died. To achieve this goal, he hired Michelangelo to make a memorial for his tomb that would capture a scene that was popular in Northern European art at the time: the tragic moment of the Virgin Mary taking Jesus down from the cross. 

Actually, that undersells de Billheres’s request. Michelangelo's exact job description for the project was to create "the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better." While other sculptors might have balked at such an intense demand, Michelangelo was confident he could complete such a task. The Pietà is considered by many to be his greatest work, besting even David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

2. After more than 200 years, the Pietà was moved to St. Peter's Basilica. 

The Late Renaissance church houses the religious monument within the first chapel to the right of its entrance. There, countless Vatican City tourists have viewed it. You can visit it virtually here

3. Michelangelo carved it from a single slab of marble. 

Specifically, he used Carrara marble, a white and blue stone named for the Italian region where it is mined. It's been a favorite medium of sculptors since the days of Ancient Rome. 

4. Pietà is the only work Michelangelo every signed.

If you look closely, the sculptor’s signature can be found across Mary's chest. Sixteenth century art historian Giorgi Vasari told the tale of how Michelangelo made his mark: 

One day Michelagnolo [sic], entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, 'Our Gobbo from Milan.' Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it. 

Michelangelo later regretted the vanity of this act, and resolved never to sign another piece of his work. 

5. The piece made Michelangelo famous when he was only 24. 

Thanks in part to putting his name in plain sight on the Pietà, Michelangelo's reputation grew as the public's love of the statue did. The artist lived to the age of 88, enjoying decades of acclaim and appreciation for his works. 

6. The sculpture has been criticized for Michelangelo's depiction of Mary. 

Some church observers sneered that the artist made her look too youthful to have a son who was 33 years old, as Jesus was believed to be at his death. Michelangelo defended this choice to his biographer Ascanio Condivi

Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body? 

7. It’s a mash-up of sculpting styles.

Michelangelo has long been praised for marrying Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with poses that favored naturalism. Another nod to Renaissance influence is a structure that ultimately resembles a pyramid, formed by Mary's head, flowing down her arms and to the bottoms of her robes. 

8. Mary's robes hide a creative compromise. 

If you look closely, you can see that Mary's head is a bit too small for her very large body. When designing Mary's measurements, Michelangelo could not impose realistic proportions and have her cradle her adult son as he envisioned. So, he had to make her—the statue's support—oversized. To play down this poetic license on her form, Michelangelo carved out sheets of gentle draping garments, camouflaging Mary's true fullness.  

9. The Pietà was brutally attacked. 

Michelangelo had a habit of shouting at his sculptures and even occasionally lashing out at them with his tools. But it was an unemployed geologist from Hungary who won infamy on Pentecost Sunday of 1972 by leaping over the railings at St. Peter's Basilica to attack the Pietà with a hammer. With 12 blows, Laszlo Toth knocked off Mary's left arm, snapped off the tip of her nose, and damaged her cheek and left eye. 

10. Its destruction was not deemed a criminal offense. 

The authorities chose not to criminally prosecute Toth for his destruction of the priceless work of art. However, a Rome court deemed him "a socially dangerous person," and committed the man to a mental hospital for two years. After he was released, Toth was deported.

11. Its restoration was a matter of debate

When a work of art is damaged in this way, its exhibitors are forced to debate what's best—leaving it as it is (like Cleveland's The Thinker that was mangled in a bombing) or altering the original to restore it. The Vatican heard three arguments on this matter. 

The first declared that the Pietà's damage was now a part of its meaning, speaking to the violence of our modern age. Others proposed that the sculpture be repaired, but with visible seams as a reminder of this grave assault. Ultimately, a seamless restoration was chosen, with the goal of making it impossible for observers to know that Toth had even touched Michelangelo's masterpiece. 

12. THE RESTORATION TOOK 10 MONTHS. 

Master craftsmen picked through the 100 bits of marble broken off of the Pietà and puzzled them back together. In a makeshift lab built around the statue, these workers spent five months identifying pieces as small as fingernails. Next, they used an invisible glue and marble powder to affix the pieces back onto the Pietà and filled any gaps with replacement pieces. And once the integral restoration was completed, the final step was securing the restored work behind bulletproof glass. 

13. This was not the first time it was behind bulletproof glass

In 1964, the Vatican loaned the Pietà to the United States, where it was displayed as part of the 1964 New York World's Fair. To ensure the safety of this statue, organizers erected a barrier of seven massive sheets of plexiglass that collectively weighed more than 4900 pounds. Then, to make sure crowds would safely pass by the sculpture, conveyor belt-style mobile walkways were installed. 

14. The Pietà's attack had an unexpected silver lining. 

During its diligent restoration, workers discovered a secret signature on the piece. Hidden in the folds of Mary's left hand was a subtle "M" believed to stand for Michelangelo.  

15. Michelangelo’s Model for The Pietà may have been discovered.

In November 2010, American art historian Roy Doliner claimed that a restored 12-inch statue from the late 15th century is a long-misidentified Michelangelo piece that served as the test run for his Pietà. The small sculpture of Mary and Jesus was previously attributed to celebrated 15th century sculptor Andrea Bregno. But Doliner believes this piece was a sort of proof of concept given to cardinal de Billheres to secure the commission.

Art
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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
6 Works of Art That Were Hiding in Plain Sight
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an 1820 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence turned up in Texas. Despite once being owned by James Madison, it had been shuffled among the papers of a family who eventually forgot about its provenance and came to consider it "worthless," at least until its recent authentication. As one of only 200 facsimiles created by printer William Stone, it was a rare document, but what made headlines was a curious footnote in the document’s journey: It had been hidden behind wallpaper during the Civil War as protection.

There’s something tantalizing about a precious object concealed by wallpaper or painted over; it suggests treasures might be hiding anywhere—maybe in our own homes. Here are a few stories of art that's been lost, and found, on the same wall, hidden beneath wallpaper, paint, and plaster.

1. ANGEL MOSAIC // PALESTINE

Conservators who began restoring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2013 after centuries of neglect were prepared to clean its mosaics from years of soot and grime. They weren’t expecting to find new ones.

Using a thermographic camera, one restoration worker noticed a shape in the plaster walls. When the team started chipping off the material, they found the brilliant glow of mother-of-pearl tiles. Soon an 8-foot-tall angel was revealed, dressed in a flowing white robe, its golden wings and halo as luminescent as when they were installed in the Crusades era. It’s believed that the angel was covered up following an 1830s earthquake, perhaps to hide damage. Now the lost seraph (above) has rejoined the procession of radiant mosaic angels who are walking to the nativity along the church’s historic walls.

2. MEDIEVAL MURALS // WALES

Mediaeval wall paintings, Llancarfan church, Wales
Chris Samuel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the Reformation, the murals in Catholic churches of the British Isles were often covered with plaster, turning them into more austere Protestant spaces. In covering them so entirely, this art was sometimes inadvertently protected from centuries of decay. In 2010, conservators announced an incredible find in the 800-year-old Church of St Cadoc at Llancarfan in Wales.

Church staff had long been intrigued by a thin red line of paint on the wall. After conservators began the painstaking work of removing 21 layers of limewash, a dramatic painting of St. George slaying a dragon appeared. The discoveries continued with scenes of other popular medieval motifs, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, a royal family, and "Death and the Gallant," in which a rotting corpse with a worm creeping in its rib cage leads an elegantly dressed man to his mortal end. The murals are now on view for all to enjoy.

3. BRETON GIRL SPINNING // FRANCE

Paul Gauguin, "Breton Girl Spinning"
Paul Gauguin, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, French artist Paul Gauguin's 1889 Breton Girl Spinning is an enigmatic fresco of a young girl dancing at a small tree. In one hand, she is spinning wool; in the distance, above the water and shapes of ships, a huge angel with a sword is flying. In part because of this angelic figure, the painting is sometimes called Joan of Arc.

The work was painted right on the plaster dining room wall of La Buvette de la Plage, an inn in Brittany, France. After being forgotten under layers of wallpaper, it and two other murals (one by Gauguin and one by his student Meijer de Haan) were rediscovered in 1924 during some redecorating.

4. MAYA MURALS // GUATEMALA

While updating their kitchen around 2007, Lucas Asicona Ramirez and his family in the Guatemalan village of Chajul discovered some old interior design—Maya murals, hidden for centuries beneath the plaster.

The roughly 300-year-old artworks in the colonial-era home featured figures in both Maya and Spanish attire, representing a moment of European arrival. One may be holding a human heart, or possibly a mask used in a dance. Ramirez hopes to turn the room into a museum, but needs more funding. Other households in Chajul also have historic murals in their homes, and some are striving to conserve these memories of their ancestors even while local preservation resources are limited.

5. WILLIAM MORRIS RED HOUSE MURALS // ENGLAND

The 19th century British artist and writer William Morris is celebrated for his textiles, writing, wallpaper, and other work in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house in Bexleyheath, Kent, that architect Philip Webb designed for him and his wife Jane in 1859 was intended not just as a home, but an incubator for art. The "Red House" became a hub for like-minded artists, and Morris founded “The Firm”—which produced decorative objects such as stained glass and furniture—there in 1861 alongside several other artists. However, the Red House community was short-lived, and financial difficulties forced the family to move out in 1865, never to return.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 2003, they found that the group had left behind some of their artistic experiments. Behind a wardrobe, under layers of paint and wallpaper, the trust made a most extraordinary find: a full wall of almost life-size biblical figures. Researchers believe they were collaboratively painted by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown, all of whom were major artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

6. AMÉRICA TROPICAL // UNITED STATES

Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had just been expelled from Mexico for his leftist activities when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Local boosters commissioned him to create a mural on the theme of "Tropical America" on the touristy Olvera Street, which was an idealized vision of a Mexican market, but he had no interest in portraying some folkloric fantasy. “For me, 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments,” he said in a 1971 documentary.

His América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism, was a moody landscape with gnarled trees clawing at a Maya temple. At the center, an indigenous man is crucified, with an American eagle ominously descending over his head. Innovative techniques such as airbrushing gave the tableau a visceral edge.

The 18-by-82-foot act of subversion was soon whitewashed. Still, many people did not forget it, especially as Siqueiros became recognized as one of the most influential of the early 1900s Mexican muralists. Eight decades after it was painted, the city of Los Angeles, along with the Getty Conservation Institute, began a restoration. The whitewash had protected its details from sun and rain and finally, in 2012, its defiant scene was again revealed to the public. It is now the oldest mural in L.A., and the only one by Siqueiros in its original location.

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