Pieta (1498-1500) by Michelangelo

Michelangelo created the Pietà between 1498 and 1500. This Pietà is widely seen as the greatest work of sculpture ever created and marks a watershed event in the Italian High Renaissance. The lamentation of Christ was a theme popular in Northern European art since the 14th century, but Michelangelo's interpretation of Mary holding a dead Christ in her arms is remarkable in its faithfulness to the Renaissance Humanist ideals of physical perfection and beauty.

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo's Pietà, 5 feet 9 inches tall, is located
in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Michelangelo worked the Pietà in the round using a drill, a tool he abandoned in later works in favor of the claw chisel. It was for this commission that the master made the first of many trips to Carrara in search of the highest quality marble. The Pietà, which Michelangelo completed before reaching his twenty-fifth birthday, is praised for its technical brilliance and inventive triangular composition. Also notable is the fact that this Pietà is the only work that Michelangelo ever signed. Regretting that he did so in a fit of prideful anger, he vowed never again to sign his own work.

While Mary's face appears peaceful in the
Pietà, it is her left hand, turned upward in helpless resignation, that betrays the true depth of emotion, indeed the intensity of her grief. Note the regal composition of her drapery as it lies in rhythmic and lavish folds beneath the body of the Savior.

Detail from Michelangelo's Pieta
Detail from Michelangelo's Pietà

In the face of the Savior, Michelangelo's Pietà reveals only slight traces of the suffering endured. The expression is peaceful, relaxed, not yet rigid, and without lingering agony. But in the body of Christ, highly polished to absolute anatomical perfection, the artist achieved his greatest sculptural triumph.

Detail from Michelangelo's Pieta
Detail from Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo's Pietà portrays a chaste and peaceful Mary, absent all pain and exuding holy sorrow. The sculpture quietly conveys the divine power of this moment. Answering criticisms that Mary's face appeared too youthful, Michelangelo told biographer Ascanio Condivi, "Don't you know that chaste women remain far fresher than those who are not chaste? So much more the Virgin, in whom never has the least lascivious desire ever arisen that might alter her body...."

Almost 10 years before creating the
Pietà, Michelangelo created the Madonna of the Stairs, a much different portrayal. Learn more in the next section of this article.

To learn more about Michelangelo, art history, and other famous artists, see: