Michelangelo's Magical Pieta'

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The Pieta’ was sculpted in less than 2 years by a youthful 24 year old Michelangelo. Viewers of the sculpture are mesmerized by Mary’s youthfulness, her beauty, her tenderness, her extreme sorrow (Pity or Pieta’) at the crucifixion of her son, Jesus. Jesus body is lying serenely in his mother’s lap with perceived relaxed abandon of this world. Only the small holes in his hands and feet and the wound on his side indicate the suffering he endured. The soft folds of Mary’s robe are in opposition to the beautiful Carrara stone from which they are carved. The scene is so divine that one doesn’t even seem to mind that Michelangelo, in a fit of prideful anger, carved his name on the sash that crosses Mary’s body, “Michelangelo Buonarroti Made This”. But wait…something is not right. Is it angle? Is it perspective? Proportion? Yes, that’s it. Something about the proportion. For many, the proportions of the Pieta’ don’t easily enter their mind until brought to their attention. In order for Mary to hold her adult son, Michelangelo had to make her lap large enough to rest Jesus’ body comfortably. He did this by making Mary’s legs, torso and robe much bigger than the size that her head and hands would dictate. If you were to have Michelangelo’s Mary stand up next to his figure of Jesus, she would giant over him.

Having pointed this out to my students, I attempted to demonstrate with the help of my adult son, Caleb. In this silly clip from our Renaissance series, episode 8 titled “What a Pity”, we see just how difficult it is to hold an adult man in your lap. Michelangelo was able to work his sculpting magic to trick our eye into thinking that holding your adult son in your lap is easy.