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

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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