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

Could Leonardo da Vinci's Artistic Genius Be Due to an Eye Condition?

Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

Leonardo da Vinci was indisputably a genius, but his singular artistic vision may have been the result of seeing the world differently in more ways than one. A new paper argues that he had strabismus, a vision disorder where the eyes are misaligned and don’t look toward the same place at the same time. This disorder, visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argues, may have helped the artist render three-dimensional images on flat canvas with an extra level of skill.

Tyler is a professor at City, University of London who has written a number of studies on optics and art. In this study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, he examined six different artworks from the period when Leonardo was working, including Young John the Baptist, Vitruvian Man, and a self-portrait by the artist. He also analyzed pieces by other artists that are thought to have used Leonardo as a model, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Young Warrior sculpture. Leonardo served as the lead assistant in the latter artist’s studio, and likely served as the model for several of his works. Leonardo was also a friend of Benedetto da Maiano, and possibly served as a model for his 1480 sculpture of John the Baptist. Tyler also looked at the recently auctioned Salvator Mundi, a painting that not all experts believe can be attributed to Leonardo. (However, at least one scientific team that examined the painting says it’s legit.)

With strabismus, a person’s eyes appear to point in different directions. Based on the eyes in Leonardo’s own portraits of himself and other artworks modeled after him, it seems likely that he had intermittent strabismus. When he relaxed his eyes, one of his eyes drifted outward, though he was likely able to align his eyes when he focused. The gaze in the portraits and sculptures seems to be misaligned, with the left eye consistently drifting outward at around the same angle.

'Vitruvian Man' with the subject's pupils highlighted
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci (~1490, Accademia, Venice)
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

“The weight of converging evidence suggests that [Leonardo] had intermittent exotropia—where an eye turns outwards—with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, using just one eye,” Tyler explained in a press release. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted.” This would have given him an assist in depicting depth accurately.

Leonardo isn’t the first famous artist whose vision researchers have wondered about. Some have speculated that Degas’s increasingly coarse pastel work in his later years may have been attributed to his degenerating eyes, as the rough edges would have appeared smoother to him because of his blurred vision. Others have suggested that Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the vibrant colors of Starry Night may have been influenced by yellowing vision caused by his use of digitalis, a medicine he took for epilepsy.

We can never truly know whether a long-dead artist’s work was the result of visual issues or simply a unique artistic vision, but looking at their art through the lens of medicine provides a new way of understanding their process.

Learn to Paint Like Bob Ross in an Upcoming Facebook Live Event

Public television hero Bob Ross may no longer be with us, but you can still paint happy little trees in his honor. October 29, 2018 marks what would have been the 76th birthday of the beloved art teacher to the masses, and to honor his memory, the Quarto Group—publisher of the new book Painting With Bob Ross—is hosting a live-streamed painting party online.

Painting With Bob Ross provides step-by-step instructions to help you create some of the master’s favorite oil landscapes on your own. While Quarto’s October 23 painting party (a collaboration with Bob Ross, Inc.) can’t teach you how to mimic Ross's soothing voice, the celebration does include a painting session with Bernie Oropallo, a Certified Ross Instructor, who will demonstrate the techniques that Ross taught on The Joy of Painting.

Promo for The Quarto Group's Bob Ross painting party
The Quarto Group

The live-streamed instructional session will take place within the offices of a youth arts center in Beverly, Massachusetts, called Express Yourself. Oropallo will lead you through the process of painting “Distant Mountains,” one of the artworks included in the new book.

The painting lesson kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on October 23. To participate, log onto Facebook and head to the QuartoCreates page to join the live event. Before it starts, check out the event page here for a list of the supplies you’ll need to complete the painting. If you can’t make it to a computer that night, grab Painting With Bob Ross on Amazon ($15) to get the next best thing. If that’s not enough for you, we suggest you curl up with the official Bob Ross art book and/or a Bob Ross coloring book.

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