December 28, 2012
MICHELANGELO's PIETA in MUSEO DELL'OPERA, FLORENCE
Originally intended for Michelangelo's own tomb, this Pieta is one of four that Michelangelo did in his lifetime. It is the only Pieta with four figures in it (the Pieta Palestrina has three figures and the one in St. Peter's as well as the Pieta Rondanini each have two figures.)It should probably be called a Deposition from the Cross because it is not technically a true Pieta, that being a composition of Mary with her son on her lap. But even as a Deposition it is not completely the usual Renaissance type of Deposition, since no wooden cross is carved in the marble composition and since other figures usually present in visual images of the Deposition are not here: John the Evangelist, the Roman soldiers, St. Longinus, and angels. The 4 figures are from left to right: Mary Magdalene, Christ, Mary, his mother, and above them all, a hooded figure with the face of Michelangelo.
The tomb for Christ is not present or even hinted at either, but since the body of Christ seems to be being lowered by the other figures and is at collapse, the next place it would be put is on the ground or in a tomb. As the sculpture was made for Michelangelo's own tomb, his own tomb would be a possible place for laying the body of Christ, a personal offering at odds with the biblical story which said his body was laid in a sepulcher hewn out of a rock.
If the subject of this sculpture is the Entombment, the scene depicts Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimathaea carrying Christ's body to Joseph's tomb. Joseph was a wealthy man and offered his own tomb for Christ's body. Michelangelo in this scenario would be presenting himself as Joseph of Arimathaea, holding and protecting Christ's body as it is being lowered into the resting place he has paid for.
In a second interpretation it is a scene meant to represent the moments between the Deposition from the cross and the Entombment afterwards. Certainly Christ's body is still reflecting its position on the cross; the arms stretch out from the shoulders and form a cross with the torso and legs. The hands and foot display the holes made by the nails, and Christ's head slumps as it might have when crucified. In traditional painted Deposition scenes, the characters present are: John the Evangelist, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and sometimes Nicodemus. Nicodemus was said to be the first sculptor of Christ's face; he is the apostle who visited Christ by night because he was afraid to visit him during the day. Michelangelo in this scenario would be presenting himself as Nicodemus, a sculptor, and the hood would remind the viewer of the secrecy of night visits as well as Michelangelo's own membership in the Misericordia. The Misericordia, a charitable organization that still exists in Italy, took care of the sick and the dead, and for funeral processions wore hoods like the one around Michelangelo's face here.
Thus, Michelangelo is 1) himself, above his own tomb, 2) Joseph of Arimathaea, above Joseph's own tomb, and 3) Nicodemus, with the hood of night. Is he also meant to be 4) John the Evangelist in his capacity of surrogate son to Mary after Christ's death? Certainly John is usually present at the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Entombment. The hooded figure's head leans towards Mary and his own left arm encloses Mary's shoulders in a protective gesture. That the figure of the artist could be simultaneously all four figures is a weight worthy of Michelangelo's consideration.
But even more remarkable, from the perspective of Michelangelo's own contemporaries, is the presumption of the artist to take on this role of protector of the holy figures. Michelangelo in this statue group is holding up the arms of Christ as they rest on the shoulders of the two Maries. He towers above the other figures, taller than they and higher. He holds up Christ's right arm with his right arm; he comforts Mary the mother with his left arm around the back of her. He places his own face in relation to the faces of Mary and Christ as though he were part of a Trinity with them, a triangle with his face at the top. He looks down on them. Is that blasphemy? He offers help to Mary and Christ in order to secure his own comfort in the afterlife. If he is standing over his own tomb, he hopes that his Misericordian charity towards the dead and their relatives will ensure his own place next to Christ and Mary in heaven. But to place himself above them in the space and to assume that his human aid will be sufficient for figures considered sacred and central in the holy narrative, is rebellious, if not blasphemous.
Three other observations should be recorded. One is about the body of Christ. I always asked students in front of this sculpture: How does Michelangelo convey in marble the dead weight of the body of Christ? And they usually had many answers:
1) He carves the body as if it is responding to gravity, fully slumped in the arms of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the artist: Christ's head bows down, the knee buckles, the diagonals of the drapery suggest a movement sloping downwards.
3) The parallel lines in the work establish downward slopes in pairs: the right arm of Christ with the parallel right calf; the edges of Michelangelo's hood with the parallel of Mary's left arm; the left arm of Christ in parallel with the right arm of Mary Magdalene (finished by Tiberio Calcagni, Michelangelo's pupil).
Michelangelo certainly had read Alberti's words in On Painting where he says,
dead man weighs down those who carry him. In every one of his members he
appears completely dead--everything hangs, hands, fingers and head; everything
falls heavily.  [p. 73] Anyone who tries to express a dead body--which is
certainly most difficult--will be a good painter, if he knows how to make each
member of a body flaccid.  Thus, in every painting take care that each
member performs its function so that none by the slightest articulation remains
flaccid. The members of the dead should be dead to the very nails; of live
persons every member should be alive in the smallest part. The body is said to
live when it has certain voluntary movements. It is said to be dead when the
members no longer are able to carry on the functions of life, that is, movement
and feeling." (Spencer trans.) Alberti is talking about what painters should do to show a dead person, but the words describe exactly what Michelangelo does to convey death in this sculpture.
The second observation is about the heads of Christ and Mary.
They are both less crisply carved than Michelangelo's head, perhaps out of deference to the Godhead and its elusiveness, but certainly as a way of connecting them and minimizing their division. They are also connected spatially. Christ's head slumps towards Mary, towards his Mother, melting back into Mother Earth, as his body is giving way to death. The genuine tenderness of the touching of these two heads makes the most humanly poignant moment of the entire sculpture. The mother wishes to gather to her mouth for embracing the body of her dead son. The son wishes to return to the site of his birth, the body of his mother. The joining of the two figures in insubstantial marble grains makes every viewer understand the sad mysteriousness of birth and death at once. Mary's kiss appears between the two faces as a mark of love connecting two planets in their cosmos.
The last observation to be made about this sculpture adds to the very long art historical discussion about the leg that is now missing in the sculpture, the left leg of Christ. (There is a square hole carved where a replacement leg was to be attached; it is unclear whether Michelangelo or later artists added the hole in preparation for putting in another leg.) The story about the leg is that Michelangelo was frustrated by the carving of the leg and smashed it, breaking it off from the full block. Once the leg was smashed, he lost interest in the finishing of the sculpture and in the intention of placing it on his own tomb. The statue group was ruined, in his mind, and not reparable. Why was this mistake in his own creation so egregious that he could not get beyond it, could not go back to the sculpture to complete it?
There are many suggestions about the reasons for the non-finito in this case: 1)that the slinging of the leg over the leg of Mary was too sexually suggestive for a sculpture of a holy group, 2) that the ruining of the leg ruined also the composition of the whole and threw all the angles of the rest of the sculpture off, 3) the broken leg meant that the desire for completing the group out of one block of Carrara marble was now lost; the artist's need to compete with ancient sculptors' achievements in carving pieces like the Laocoon out of one block of marble without error was now thwarted. (The print above shows what the sculpture might have looked like with the leg intact.)
But in a conversation with my sister, Lynn Fairfield, we agreed there is something else to consider in this matter. In the biblical story of Christ's Crucifixion one of the important narrative points made after Christ is nailed to the cross and has died next to the thieves is in
John 19: 30-36:
He bowed his head and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation,
that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was
an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with
him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs:
But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and
water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true; and he knoweth that he saith true,
that ye might believe. For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of
him shall not be broken.
"They brake not his legs" so that a prophecy told before will be now affirmed that "A bone of him shall not be broken." In Christ's holy story his legs are not broken whereas the others crucified with him have their legs broken by the soldiers (to speed up death). Michelangelo knew this story and had tried to carve Christ as he would have looked after being crucified in the scriptural passage, i.e.,with legs intact. In frustration he had done to Christ what had not been done to him in truth. The artist had broken his leg, and in so doing, had broken the spell of the untouched body that had been prophesied by previous seers in the Bible. He could not in good conscience continue work on the piece knowing he had subjected his Christ to more torture than he had experienced in his death. He could not finish the work knowing he had, in his anger and frustration in not rendering a perfect form, set himself and his rock as obstacles in the rushing stream of truthful prophesy. His imperfection was allowed for his own feeble efforts, but it was not allowed for the figure of the Godhead whose body remained pure in fulfillment of holy wishes.
The sculpture was ruined and could not be continued. It now contents viewers in its incomplete state.