The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

The Pietà

The Basilica di San Pietro is the centrepiece of the Catholic Church. It is designed to leave you awestruck; to leave you in no doubt not only of the power of God, but – more importantly – of the Church itself.

Construction took 120 years, with Michelangelo an important part of the early planning. He had scaled down the original architect’s plan, not only reducing costs but also pushing for a more intimate space. The Counter-Reformation followed his death, in which the Church found itself desirant of a statement, to show the western world that it was still top dog, and all ideas of intimacy for the new basilica in the very heart of the Vatican were thrown out. 

The resulting Basilica, which we can enter today, is utterly enormous; a fact it doesn’t shy away from, with plaques on the floor showing how far other famous churches would reach were they dropped inside the vast space. British visitors, for example, will need to walk a good hundred paces or so before they reach St. Paul’s outer extremity. 

Everything within the church is oversized. A golden inscription runs high above, depicting Jesus’ words to Peter (“Tu es Petrus…” – “You are ‘the Rock’”) in 6 ft-tall capitals. The statues of saints and popes alike are colossal. The mosaic reproductions of paintings by the likes of Raphael (the regular canvas originals would be ruined by years of smoke from the burning incense) are enormous. The central dome (Michelangelo’s design, inspired by that in The Pantheon) – the exterior of which is visible for miles around – is the largest such structure in the world, and seems, as you stand beneath it, to stretch up towards heaven itself.

When walking through mountains, it can be difficult to judge the scale of what you’re looking at. You can see the mountains are big, perfectly well, but can’t gauge just how big. Then you see a cluster of trees halfway up, see the same trees near to you all of which are towering, 30 ft-tall things, and you realise just how massive the mountain really is. 

So it is with the Basilica. Of course you can see that it’s ‘big’ as soon as you enter. The ceiling looks a long way up; the far end a fair distance away. Then you see a fully-grown person of fair height walking past one of the central pillars halfway along, and see that they are barely the height of the base of the column which stretches up, up, up above them, and then you realise just how big it all is. That tiny dove that you can just about see (it’s the small, yellowy glow just below the halfway point of the photo below), in the golden window at the far end of the church, is actually twelve feet high. 

Interior of St. Peter's Basilica

All of this, of course – particularly regarding the structure itself – is architectural genius. It is part of a deliberate effort to both awe you with scale and magnitude, and at once retain the feeling of intimacy and togetherness to which all churches should aspire. 

And, ultimately, it is the very enormity of the place which helps to make its greatest feature so striking. 

‘The’ Pietà 

The Pieta of Michelangelo

Tucked away in a corner immediately to the right of the typically enormous, bronze entrance to the Basilica is the Pietà. In a building filled with gold and burgundy, it is a plain white. In a basilica so absurdly cavernous in its proportions, it is merely life-sized. The architecture itself and all the other pieces of art within it exude power; this corner is one of intimacy. 

A Pietà (‘pity’) is a theme in religious art, akin to the Adoration of the Magi, Madonna and Child, and so on. In this case, it always depicts Mary cradling the body of Jesus, but there are surely few imaginings as impactful as this one.

Pieta of Michelangelo

As is often the case with great art, something immediately arrests your attention with Michelangelo’s Pietà; but you can’t quite put your finger on what. 

In this case, I believe it to be the proportions. Despite a bearded Jesus clearly being in adulthood, he has been sculpted much smaller than Mary here. He is slight too, only serving to emphasise more greatly the basic reality of the scene, invariably lost in the telling of the story; that is, that a mother has lost her son. 

That scene – of a mother cradling her dead child – is inherently moving. Michelangelo’s specific depictions of Christ and Madonna, however, make this a uniquely powerful interpretation. 

Mary appears deliberately young; surely no more than a teenager, in fact. Her face is cast downwards, not in outright despair, but in noble sorrow. While her right hand supports the body, though (without actually touching it, interestingly – cloth entirely prevents the skin of mother and child from touching), her left hand is turned upwards towards heaven. It is not only the up/down contrast that strikes the viewer, but the possible meanings of that upturned palm, which seems almost to question God himself. 

Then we have the depiction of Jesus, which is an utter masterclass in sculptural technique. More dynamic poses garner the attention in galleries, and provide the sculptors themselves the chance to display a lot of muscles and veins and sinews and all the rest of it. To represent a body as utterly limp and lifeless, however, is another matter entirely, and one which Micehlangelo achieves here with tremendous and tragic effect. Jesus’ thin form slumps in his mother’s lap, his head drooping back unsupported, even his fingers and toes appearing devoid of life. 

The realism is genuinely uncanny; almost unsettling. Stare at the sculpture, and Jesus in particular, for long enough, and your eyes begin to trick your mind; to tell it this can’t possibly be handcrafted stone at all. 

Jesus’ exposed neck, meanwhile, emphasises the vulnerability which had already led to his death; not only that, but his specific attitude almost entirely hides his face from the viewer below, leaving Mary’s expression as the only one we see; our only clue as to how to feel ourselves, perhaps, and – following on from her disproportionately large size – further emphasising her dominance in the sculpture. 

As in the Sistine Chapel though, it is not only Michelangelos’ flawless execution which makes him so special. It is the imagination too, which – despite being limited by subject, in this case a Pietà – manifests itself in all of these specifics of the depiction; all of the unexpected, wonderful little touches and decisions through which we see his unique genius. 

The Artist

portrait of Michelangelo

Two more points, on the creator himself. 

First, there is the age. 

Michelangelo was only 23 when he made his Pietà. Now we’re well used to these extraordinary people doing extraordinary things at young ages. Look at Picasso adolescent paintings, Mozart’s early compositions, any of the other countless examples, all doubtlessly impressive but to which we’re somewhat numb.

The difference here, however, is not only the technical brilliance, which can become manifest at remarkably young ages in various fields. Rather, it is the understanding of human nature, and the nature of tragedy in particular, which the 23 year old Michelangelo both understood and expressed. 

Incidentally, or maybe not, his own mother died when he was six. Too young to truly remember her by this age, perhaps, but not so old as to have forgotten – to still suffer from, who knows – the sense of loss. It is difficult indeed to imagine how someone could express a scene such as this, and with such delicacy, without having at least some experience to inform them. 

The second point relates to Vasari’s old favourite subject. That is, Michelangelo’s ‘divinity’.

In his ‘Life’ of Michelangelo (free PDF here), Vasari talks about both the Pietà specifically, and about the artist’s sculpting more generally. He lays out quite beautifully the transformation – unique to this art form – which takes place, and in a way that I had never considered before. 

He describes how Michelangelo – as in this case – can start with a large, single chunk of cold, dead stone; and, by his hand and his tools alone, create life. It is by definition miraculous, and when you gaze on the Pietà – as with the Sistine Chapel – it is difficult indeed to conceive of how this transformation, this life-giving, could possibly have been wrought by human hand. 

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