PLATE 3 (detail right) Pietà (1498 – 99) St. Peter’s, Rome Marble, 69 inches (175 cm) high

Commissioned in 1497, this was Michelangelo’s first religious commission and the only work he signed. This indicates the importance he attached to receiving so prestigious a contract at the age of only twenty-three, when he was already famous. Also was the fact that the work was destined for St. Peter’s, the most important church in Christendom, where the work has remained, though moved to different locations in later centuries. It is now in the first chapel on the north side of the basilica. Michelangelo’s identification with the work is boldly stated in the band across the chest of the Madonna. It is indeed an extraordinary work in its emotional depth and technical assurance; that it is the work of so young and inexperienced a hand must surely be a measure of Michelangelo’s developing genius. The sculpture was made from a block of marble, originally oval in shape, as can be seen from the base, and the surface is finely polished with modeling that is both acute and sensitive. The youthful figure of the Madonna holding the body of her son, newly removed from the cross and appearing little younger than his mother, adds to the pathos of a mother surviving the death of her son. The figure of Christ is a brilliant expression of Michelangelo’s already deep knowledge of human anatomy, seen in the clear lack of muscular tension in what is, after all, a dead body.


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