September 27, 2010

Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta

Michelangelo, Pietá, 1499, Saint Peter, Vatican City

Michelangelo's more famous Pieta, carved when he was a young man, has a number of visual inconsistencies that make no sense as part of the narrative. The Virgin appears to be vast with larger hands than her son's; her face is far too young for a mother with a 33-year old child; and Christ's body, though clearly not well, is just as clearly alive. His limbs are tense, not limp, and blood seems to pulse through his veins. The way to make sense of this problem is to imagine the scene as we did his Florentine Pieta, the difference being that here the Virgin is the "artist" holding her "sculpture" in her lap.(1) This not only explains why her figure is out of scale but also why Michelangelo boldly and infamously signed his name across her chest: he was implying for later artists that the Virgin is my alter ego. That is also why her hands are so large: they represent "the hands" of the great craftsman, Michelangelo. Moreover, Christ's body is depicted alive because the aim of great sculpture was to "breathe life" into stone. This subtly suggests, of course, that Michelangelo has resurrected Christ, a heretical idea to the enforcers of Church doctrine, perhaps, but perfect sense to the saints and mystics who followed the Inner Tradition.

Michelangelo, Pietá, 1499 (detail)

Lastly, there is an underlying metaphor here of great importance. Michelangelo always referred to images of his work in his mind as concetti, the equivalent of the english word conception.(2) Thus, in representing himself as the Virgin, Michelangelo presents to us his own Immaculate Conception, the sculpted body of Christ who, it must be recognized, represents the artist’s own soul, perfected. It is the sculptor’s version of “every painter paints himself”, a saying that Michelangelo is even said to have cited.

1. Vasari, well aware of Michelangelo's meaning, wrote of Christ's figure in the Pieta: ‘It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse’ His description of the outer parts as 'stretched over their framework' strongly suggests a plaster sculpture stretched over its armature. See Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture(London and New York: Routledge) 1995, p. 85
2. David Summers, “Form and Gender” in in Visual Culture: Images and Interpretation, eds. N. Bryson, M.A. Holly and K. Moxey (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press) 1994, p.386
Originally published by EVERY PAINTER PAINTS HIMSELF (Simon Abrahams © 2010)

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