What happened in the hours between the death of Jesus and the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea? Michelangelo attempts to address this question, among others, in his earliest rendition of La Pietà. Later in his career, the Renaissance master began other sculptures of the same theme, most notably the Pietà Palestrina (1550), and the Rondanini Pietà (1564); Michelangelo did not complete the later Pietà (pl.) before his death in 1564. The earliest Pietà (the word means pity, in Italian, and is used as a generic term to describe all works depicting this historical moment) is the only of these three works to be fully finished. It was commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Billheres, and originally stood at his funerary chapel before being moved to St. Peter’s Basilica. The Cardinal undoubtedly imposed his vision for the piece on the artist, which accounts for the dramatic departure in style and message of Michelangelo’s later Pietà, which he created of his own accord.
In looking at the physical representation of Jesus in each piece, we can read what the artist was trying to convey about Jesus, his relationship with Mary, and his followers’ relationship with him. La Pietà bleeds with emotion, though Jesus and Mary’s faces are seemingly neutral. Of course, Jesus is dead so too much expression on his face would be counterintuitive, but some viewers are surprised by the stillness on Mary’s face, considering she holds the body of her dead son. Her left hand is positioned with an open palm, reminiscent of meditation images seen in Eastern art. Can Mary be at peace after witnessing her son’s crucifixion?
Other aspects of Mary’s appearance tell us more about the way Michelangelo perhaps wanted Jesus to be seen. Mary is shown supporting the body of a fully-grown man on her lap. In a practical sense, that is difficult for the average woman to do. In La Pietà, Mary’s figure is actually larger than that of Jesus. Her bottom half forms a sturdy base for the body of Jesus. Even though the piece is life-like, it is not realistic in this sense. Mary’s size makes Jesus look small in comparison. This has been interpreted to mean that Mary is actually holding baby Jesus, but the viewer of the piece sees a glimpse of the future, in which Jesus is an adult. Though it is somewhat valid, this complicated theory was never supported by the artist himself or any contemporaries and thus is not widely supported today.
The pressing issue concerning Mary’s appearance is, why Michelangelo depicted her with such youthful features. If Jesus died at or around age 30, Mary would have been approximately 45 years old. The Mary of La Pietà has the face of a teenage beauty. With that said, Jesus himself has the face of a much younger man. What does this youthful portrayal of Jesus and Mary say to viewers about their nature? It suggests that both characters embody innocence, which is a common quality of youth. There is conceivably no woman more innocent than the Virgin Mother, and no man more innocent than the Son of God (the Infancy Gospel of Thomas begs to differ.) Michelangelo said,
“Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?”Mary’s youthful appearance is important to the viewer that subscribes to the Holy Trinity, and chooses to see her both as the mother and daughter of Jesus/God. The parent-child relationship is a likely aspect of the artist’s intent. In a study on Early Christianity, James S. Jeffers noted that the term pietas originally referred to the sense of duty a child had toward their parents. Romans later likened that sense of duty to a person’s obligations to their god(s). In a complicated parent-child/human-God relationship like that of Jesus and Mary, we can see the lines of pietas crossing in every imaginable way. I think La Pietà reflects that complication very well. As we see the pair situated on the rock at Golgotha, Jesus is weak in death but supported by a strong yet somber Mary; Mary is simultaneously a weak human, looking to her God for comfort.
A brief consideration of Michelangelo’s later Pietà is in order. The Pietà Palestrina shows the body of Jesus supported by two figures. Mary is on the viewer’s right side, and a man is holding the body from behind. As mentioned above, Michelangelo began this work for himself. It is widely accepted that pupils worked on the statue after his death, which accounts for signs of inferior craftsmanship on the periphery, and eventual abandonment of the project before its completion. The man behind Jesus could be a representation of God. It is likely that he was supposed to be Joseph of Arimathea, who is identified in the Bible as caring for the body of Jesus. As in Michelangelo’s Florintine Pietà, the artist’s own face was likely put on the Joseph of Arimathea figure. It should be noted that the size of Mary makes more sense here, in relation to the men beside her.
The Rondanini Pietà is interesting in that it shows Mary tending to the body of Jesus from above. This is commonly interpreted as Mary on the back of Jesus, which is a sign that Jesus, in spirit, is actually supporting Mary. It is fitting that Michelangelo would turn to this view of Jesus in his dying years.
Rondanini Pietà (alternate view)