If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Pietà (marble sculpture)

Michelangelo, Pietà, marble, 1498-1500 (Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

The Pietà was a popular subject among northern european artists. It means Pity or Compassion, and represents Mary sorrowfully contemplating the dead body of her son which she holds on her lap. This sculpture was commissioned by a French Cardinal living in Rome.

Look closely and see how Michelangelo made marble seem like flesh, and look at those complicated folds of drapery. It is important here to remember how sculpture is made. It was a messy, rather loud process (which is one of the reasons that Leonardo claimed that painting was superior to sculpture!). Just like painters often mixed their own paint, Michelangelo forged many of his own tools, and often participated in the quarrying of his marble -- a dangerous job.

When we look at the extraordinary representation of the human body here we remember that Michelangelo, like Leonardo before him, had dissected cadavers to understand how the body worked.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in Saint Peter's Basilica standing in front of Michelangelo's Pieta. DR. BETH HARRIS: I feel very lucky, because on this rainy Monday morning, we're the only ones. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it actually looks quite small-- DR. BETH HARRIS: It does. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In relationship to the chapel that holds it, but also especially in relationship to Saint Peter's, which is so vast. DR. BETH HARRIS: Of course, this sculpture was made for a cardinal, but then it was placed in the old Saint Peter's, which was significantly smaller than this one. And so it would have had a different relationship to the architecture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What I'm finding interesting is despite the fact that it's relatively small, and probably about 20 feet away from us, it's still a really intimate image. There really is this extraordinary relationship that Michelangelo has constructed between the body of the dead Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary, who holds him on her lap. DR. BETH HARRIS: Mary looks very young and beautiful, but her body is-- and her lap is sort of enlarged to carry the body of her dead son, but the realization that dead body, of its weight-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's weight. DR. BETH HARRIS: One of the most beautiful passages, I think, of the sculpture is the way that she holds up his right arm, and pulls up that flesh a little bit. And you really feel first of all, that the marble is transformed by Michelangelo into flesh, but also the weight of that body, and through that weight, the loss of life that's so palpable for Mary. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's the complete lack of resistance that his body offers and the exertion that she has to extend in order to hold him. And that contrast makes for the viewer, I think, a very physical experience looking at the sculpture. DR. BETH HARRIS: His body looks so much like the body of a real, young man, the ribcage and the abdominal muscles. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And yet it's also idealized in the way in which there's this beautiful turn of his body across her lap. And for Mary as well, there's this interesting contradiction in her sweetness, and the beauty, but also the strength and the scale that's necessary for her to easily hold him. Look at how deeply carved that marble is. DR. BETH HARRIS: The drapery. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This real love of the turn of the stone, that's creating this very vivid sense of alternation, really, of light and shadow, the complexity of surface against the broad, pure surfaces of Christ's legs, of his torso, of his arm. DR. BETH HARRIS: Mary tilts her head forward, and looks down at him. His head is thrown back, so there's [INAUDIBLE] between those two necks for me. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And his neck is exposed to us, incredibly vulnerable. Christ's foot hangs in midair. Mary, her left hand is open and pointing delicately forward, as if she still trying to comprehend his death. DR. BETH HARRIS: But I think there's also a way of presenting Christ's body to the viewers, saying this is the path to salvation. This is God's sacrifice for mankind, my sacrifice of my son that makes possible your redemption. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There is a kind of rhythm that points to that hand. The drape and the knee point up towards Christ's knees, which in turn create a kind of rhythmic bridge to her hand, and to that sense of wondering. This is very clearly an image that's meant to be contemplated. And the pain and the suffering that Christ has endured that-- DR. BETH HARRIS: And Mary's enduring. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That Mary is enduring is meant to be contemplated as a pathway. DR. BETH HARRIS: They're polishing the floor. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK, let's move on.