Michelangelo Sculptures
Saint Peter’s Pieta (Michelangelo)

12th Sep 2010Posted in: Michelangelo Sculptures Comments Off on Saint Peter’s Pieta (Michelangelo)

Saint Peter’s Pieta (Michelangelo)

Saint Peter’s Pieta (1498-1499 69 inches)

The Saint Peter’s Pieta is surely the most universally loved work of Michelangelo. With good reason, we admire the miraculous transformation of a giant piece of marble into a larger than life-size two-figure sculpture group. But more than a work of art, the Pieta is a moving and deeply affecting portrayal of the Virgin and Christ, of a mother mourning the loss of her son.

Michelangelo’s biographers tell a delightful tale of how the artist signed his masterpiece on the diagonal sash across the Virgin’s chest. The artist supposedly overheard two persons who, admiring the sculpture but uncertain of its author, attributed it to a certain Gobbo of Milan. Incensed, Michelangelo returned later that night and prominently carved (in translation): “Michelangelo Buonarroti Florentine made this.”

A closer inspection of how the band articulates the body underneath and affects the surrounding drapery forces us to recognize that the signature was not an afterthought but was conceived as an integral part of the sculpture from the beginning. It is likely that Michelangelo always intended to sign of decorate the sash in some manner.

The story, nonetheless, is one that universally delights in the retelling, and however fictional, it also captures an important truth about this unique work: this was Michelangelo’s boldest quest for fame and his graduation piece to public acclaim.

Never again would Michelangelo sign a work.

The image of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ, known as the Pietà, stems from a popular Northern Renaissance composition. Commissioned by a French cardinal in 1498, the Pietà ushered in Michelangelo’s fame as a sculptor. The contract for the work even stipulates that

That sentence alone attests to the importance placed on the commission. One of the original copies of the contract for the Pietà is on display in this gallery.

Provenance of The Pieta (Michelangelo Buonarroti)

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni
(Florence 1475 – 1564 Rome)
Bronze, brown patina
Height x width: 65 x 76.75 inches

Signed in the cast: MICHAEL.ĀGELVS.

Edition: No. 4 of an edition of 12 bronzes cast in 1982.   The original plaster prototype

is a precise cast of Michelangelo’s original marble statue in St. Peter’s, Rome.   The

prototype was made in 1932 by the Fonderia Marinelli with the authorization of the


Selected Reference Literature:

Vasari, Le vite dei più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori… 1550 and 1568; Condivi,

Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti…1553; Ludwig Goldscheider, Michelangelo: Complete

Edition, 1962;  D. Redig de Campos, “Un nuovo aspetto della Pietà di Michelangelo in S.

Pietro”, in Capitolium, 1963, 188-191; Il Carteggio di Michelangelo, Florence, 1979, IV,

229;  J. Pope-Hennessy, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculture, 1985.

On 8 February 1546, the French monarch François I wrote to Michelangelo in Rome:

Sr Michelangelo, because I would like very much to have some works made

by you, I have instructed the Abbé of Saint Martin de Troyes [i.e. the artist

Primaticcio], who is the bearer of this present letter, to go abroad to collect

them.   If, on his arrival, you have some fine pieces you wish to give him, I

have commanded him to pay you well for them.   And furthermore, for my sake,

I hope that you will permit him to take casts from the Christ of the Minerva and

from Our Lady della Febbre [the Pietà]  so that I may adorn one of my chapels

with them, as they are works which I am assured are the most exquisite and

excellent in your art.

When Michelangelo completed the Pietà in 1499, he was 24 years old and the premier sculptor in Italy.   Thereafter he became the first in the world.  Though he lived to be  almost 90, and carved sculptures of inimitable force and compassion, Michelangelo never again achieved the sublime expression of the Pietà.   The King’s appeal for a cast is proof that he lived to see it become an icon.

The Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. – Vasari.

The Pieta, Michelangelo’s most sacred work, was commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Villiers de la Grolaye, an aged Benedictine, who sought a monument for his tomb.   The contract of 27 August 1498 was signed by the cardinal and by Jacopo Galli, a Roman banker for whom Michelangelo had carved the classical Bacchus that is today in the Bargello museum in Florence.   His sponsor’s confidence was unbounded:  “I, Jacopo Galli, do promise the Reverend Monsignor that Michelangelo will complete the said work within one year, and that it shall be the most beautiful work in marble to be seen in Rome today, and such that no master of our times shall be able to produce a better.”

Michelangelo fulfilled these remarkable conditions except in one respect: the Pieta took him two years, not one.   Cardinal de la Grolaye never saw the completed sculpture, but the statue was duly installed over his tomb in the chapel of St Petronilla, a circular Roman mausoleum adjacent to the south transept of St Peter’s in Rome.  By 1517, as St Peter’s was reconstructed and enlarged, the statue was transferred to the interior of the new basilica.   It was first placed in the chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre, where it was seen by Vasari and Condivi.  After a series of other transfers, the Pietà was moved in 1749 to the first chapel to the right of the entrance.   According to Redig de Campos, director of the Vatican museums, the Pietà was originally installed at a height of 120 centimeters above the ground.

The scene of the Pietà, in which Christ’s body is placed across his mourning mother’s knees, is not mentioned in the Bible, but during the Middle Ages as cited as one of the ‘Seven Sorrows of the Virgin’.    The subject became widely known in northern European wooden sculpture which emphasized its tragic depths.   During the Renaissance, Botticelli and other Florentine painters  represented the Pietà, but Michelangelo was the first Italian sculptor in his century to attempt it.

Vasari, Michelangelo’s admirer and friend, was convinced of its perfection:

Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ.   It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members…  The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time.

All observers agree on the harmony of Michelangelo’ s group which combines the two figures within the outline of a pyramid.  “Christ’s head is turned back in such a way as not to break the bounding line, and beneath his body the folds of the Virgin’s cloak flood down like a waterfall” (Pope-Hennessy).   The question was raised at the time that Mary might be considered too young in relation to her son.   Michelangelo replied, through Condivi, that the Virgin’s  youthfulness was the outward manifestation of her chaste heart.

The serenity of this interpretation is a similarly original departure from the prior tradition.   Our deepest feelings are touched by the sight of Christ, as if in death he has again become a child gathered up in his mother’s arms.   Her expression is mild and contemplative.   The Savior’s torso and limbs are smooth and hardly show the marks of his sufferings.   So Michelangelo had  portrayed him in a Crucifix for the Augustinians of Santo Spirito church in Florence.   Michelangelo was deeply versed in the Renaissance philosophy, based on St Augustine, that held that

God is beautiful, beautiful in heaven and on earth…  beautiful in the arms of his parents… beautiful in leaving this life and in retaking it; beautiful on the Cross, in the tomb, and in heaven.   Listen to the psalms and let not the weakness of the flesh distract your eyes from the splendour of his beauty.

– Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms.

It was Michelangelo’s genius to embody in a sculpture his personal longing for the purity and divinity of God.   The subject of the Pietà invites our reflection on mortality: late in his life the sculptor would return several times to this theme.   In this first, youthful Pietà, however, where others had seen only tragedy, Michelangelo found immortality.

The Pietà was always the most admired of his sacred conceptions. Its fame was widely spread during Michelangelo’s lifetime by requests for copies in marble and plaster.

Rudolf Wittkower and other scholars have observed that when sculptors copied the Pietà, they invariably introduced modifications.   Plaster casts taken directly from the original are the most faithful possible duplication of its volumes and form.   But the surface of plaster is dull and porous.   Michelangelo worked both marble and bronze in emulation of the classical preference for these noblest and most enduring of materials.

I have personally inspected this bronze cast of the Pietà on the premises of the famous Fonderia Marinelli in Florence.  I am pleased to confirm that it represents the highest quality casting and finishing of art bronzes that exists in the world.     The Marinelli plaster prototype, which was made from the pristine marble original in 1932, is unique.

John T Spike

Florence, Italy

November 23, 2005

John T. Spike

Art Historian

John T. Spike is a noted historian of Italian art of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. In 1979, he earned his PhD from Harvard University with a thesis devoted to Mattia Preti, the seventeenth-century painter known as Il Cavalier Calabrese. In recognition of his authoritative studies on Preti, Spike has recently been named an honorary citizen by Taverna, the artist’s birthplace. Since 1989, Dr. Spike has been General Editor of The Illustrated Bartsch, the multi-volume compendium of European prints executed before 1750. He is also the author of four of the more than ninety volumes published to date.

In the course of his career, Spike has organized many exhibitions of Italian art and has read lectures at important museum around the world, including the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna; the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; the Musée du Louvre, Paris; the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Dr. Spike serves as permanent consultant to the Museo Civico di Taverna, the Museo Civico di Urbania/Casteldurante, and the Cathedral Museum of Molina, Malta. He is the Director of the Biennale Internazionale dell’Arte Contemporanea in Florence.

He has written numerous articles and reviews on a wide range of topics for art historical journals, especially the Burlington Magazine, FMR, Il Giornale dell’Arte and Quadri e Sculture. He has recently published major books on the Florentine Renaissance: Masaccio (Abbeville, 1996) and Fra Angelico (Abbeville, 1997). His books on other Italian subjects include A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Met (co-author, Paul Magriel; Random House, 1988) and Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (Harry N. Abrams, 1992).

Since 1989, John Spike has resided in Florence with his wife, Michele, and their son, Nicholas.


Michelangelo is widely considered the greatest artistic genius that ever lived — a man whose name has become synonymous with the word “masterpiece.” He was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni at Caprese, Italy and grew up in Florence, home of the Italian High Renaissance. It was here that he received his education under the patronage of the de Medici family. His works include the world famous Pieta, David and the breathtaking frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

As an artist he was unmatched, the creator of works of sublime beauty that express the full breadth of the human condition. He left immortal works in sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry. Through this vast and multifaceted body of artistic achievement, Michelangelo made an indelible imprint on the Western imagination. No other artist has ever attained such a high level of mastery in all of these four areas of artistic endeavor.

Although the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Vatican) are probably the best known of his works today, the artist thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, once avowing that he drank in with his wet-nurses’ milk, the love of the stone cutters’ tools. Michelangelo worked in marble sculpture all his life and in the other arts only at certain periods.


He was a deeply spiritual man and believed that his art was divinely inspired. To Michelangelo, the artist’s tools and his stone are instruments of the divine will and the creative process an aspect of salvation.

The concept of genius as divine inspiration, a superhuman power granted to a few rare individuals and acting through them, is nowhere more fully exemplified than in his life and work. The theory that guided Michelangelo’s hand appears in his poetry:

Every beauty which is seen here below by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that

celestial source from which we all are come…

My eyes longing for beautiful things together with my soul longing for salvation have no other power to

ascend to heaven than the contemplation of beautiful things.

His contemporaries spoke about the man and his works with one word: “terribilita,” meaning awesome. There has never been a more literally awesome artist than Michelangelo: awesome in the scope of his imagination and awesome in the awareness of the significance – the spiritual significance – of beauty.

Beauty was to him divine; one of the ways in which God communicated Himself to humanity. The absolute perfection of his artistic execution is unsurpassed by any other artist that the world has ever known and explains why his work is so treasured.


Michelangelo’s search for God, whose sublime purpose he saw revealed in the beauty of the human form and his disinterest in any subject save the human form, which he held to be the supreme vehicle of expression, led him to an intense and exhaustive study of the human body. His belief that nothing worth preserving could be done without genius was attended by the conviction that nothing could be done without persevering study. So Michelangelo studied the human form. He studied the ancient sculptors who knew how to represent the beautiful human body in motion, with all its muscles and sinews. However, he was not content with learning the laws of anatomy secondhand. He made his own research into human anatomy, dissected bodies and drew from models until the human figure did not seem to hold any secrets for him. He strove with an incredible singleness of purpose to master this one problem and master it fully until it was rumored that this young artist not only equaled the renowned masters of classical antiquity but actually surpassed them.


At the age of twenty-three, Michelangelo was commissioned by a French cardinal to create the Pieta for St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican as a tomb monument. He traveled to the marble quarries at Cararra in central Italy to select the block from which to make this large work. The choice of the stone was important because he envisioned the statue as already existing within the marble, needing only to be “set free” from it. It was sculpted from 1498-1500 and established Michelangelo instantly as the greatest sculptor of his time. The word Pieta means pity from the Greek word for “compassion” or “pity” and refers not, as often presumed to this specific work (Michelangelo actually did two other Pietas later in life, both of them unfinished) but to a traditional type of devotional image. The theme of Mary cradling the dead body of Christ in her lap was all but unknown in Italy before Michelangelo made it famous in this statue, but it was a staple in the repertoire of French and German sculptors and painters. Michelangelo, however, rendered the northern theme in a way never before attempted or accomplished.

Georgio Vasari, The great art historian wrote:

“It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor, no matter how brilliant, ever to surpass the grace

or design of this work, or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. It

is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have reduced to perfection that nature is

scarcely able to create in the flesh. Michelangelo put in to this work so much love and effort (something

that he never did again), that he left his name written across the sash over Our Lady’s breast.”

Additional Reading about The Pieta of Michelangelo

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