Today, August 26, marks the anniversary of the commissioning of Michelangelo to create what would become the Pietà. The year was 1498 and the pope was Alexander VI. The Reformation was on the horizon, but Luther was still a boy in the midst of his schooling.
Michelangelo, on the other hand, was a rising star in the Italian Renaissance, though he had yet to create any of masterpieces known by many today. The Pietà would be his first grand piece, soon to be followed up by works like the David and the painting of the Sistine Chapel.
The Problem of Modern Lights
For any who have traveled to Rome, one of the unquestioned sightseeing stops is the Vatican—and just as you enter the Vatican you can find the Pietà on your right. It is now thronged by tourists, and it sits behind glass after a madman attempted to destroy it with a hammer. We take photos, try to remember our art history class, and wonder at its interpretation.
For example, when we pause to notice the relative size and age of Mary, we immediately notice interesting features.
If the proportions we see in front of us were true, she would easily tower over Shaquille O’Neal, palm any basketball, and would be fit more for the circus than as the mother of our Lord. Michelangelo has done this, of course, in order to make the sculpture balance for those standing in front of the piece—foreshortening elements in order to make it work for the eye. But the skill to have done this in marble is truly impressive.
Mary, too, is far too young for the scene. She is here depicted as one might think of her when she is visited by the angel while in Bethlehem. But by this point in the story of Christ, she would have been quite a bit older.
Other features we may notice are much more modern in origin. Not a few have commented that the statue appears to make Mary the central part of the scene. Jesus’ face seems to be turned away from us, the light shines brightly on Mary instead. Is this not evidence of the cult of Mary in traditional Catholic piety?
In fact, this Mary-focused impression is created by the modern setting of the Pietà. It is set on a pedestal and lit from below by electric lights, and so the view we have today is not what Michelangelo intended.
The Pietà in its Day
When Michelangelo sculpted the Pietà, it was not made for the St. Peter’s we enter today. Instead there stood Old St. Peter’s, a building which (with some repairs and expansion) had been built by Constantine. Also it hardly needs to be said that the 15th century did not have lightbulbs.
The original setting for the Pietà, then, was quite different. It sat in a rotunda, lit from above by natural light, and it was not on a pedestal but on the ground. This may seem like nonessential issues, but for the artist it is vital to understand how their art is to be displayed.
At least some of Michelangelo’s intentions became manifest when the Pietà went on tour for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. There the statue remained on a pedestal for the viewers, yet the hosts chose to have the piece lit from above. And so, centuries after it was carved, we now have photographs of the Pietà at least somewhat how it would have been displayed in 1500.
In this setting, the impression one gets of the Pietà is almost entirely the reverse as we see it in the Vatican: Mary’s face is shrouded in shadow, symbolic it seems of the despair at the death of the savior before his resurrection. Also in several photographs, the Pietà is shot straight on, and not from a lower vantage. In this case, we notice that, rather than obscuring the face of Jesus, the statue appears to ‘lean’ into us, holding the dead body of Christ forward for the viewer to consider.
Though we can never recreate the original settings in Old St. Peter’s, the value of the Pietà traveling to the World’s Fair means we can gain a better guess as to Michelangelo’s message: consider the death of Christ and the weight of the sacrifice. At this moment in the drama of redemption, those who followed the Lord were shrouded in shadow.
The Pietà and Protestants
Does this mean Protestants are going to adopt Michelangelo as their artist and the Pietà as their work? Certainly not. But it may mean that Michelangelo was a better theologian than people give him credit for. Also there are Protestants who will never stomach the Pietà in any lighting, to say nothing of those Reformed brethren who find any representation of Christ as a breaking of the 2nd Commandment.
The point, I think, is the way history should be used. It is a problem for all of us to read an original piece of history—whether a work of theology, an action of an person, or a work of art—in the light of how these things are later used. Without falling into cynicism, it’s always worth reminding ourselves that, just because something is altered to a different purpose later, does not mean we should read that history back into the original thing. The abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use. Even if we may never wish to see the Pietà in a positive light, it still deserves an honest historical appraisal before we make any judgment.
So, too, should we treat other issues of more theological weight.