Inspired Creations – Part 2 – “Pieta”

Posted by on March 5, 2011 in Inspired Creations | 6 comments

When I say something was “inspired by religion” what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that the artist had an epiphany one day and felt compelled to paint or sculpt a religious subject matter? Or does it mean that when creating the artwork, the artist felt like the “hand of God” descended from heaven to guide his own to make it become a magical work of art? Or is it something else altogether?

Most religious art of any note has been commissioned by the Church and placed in a position to try and evoke as much awe and wonder from the viewer as possible. It also seems that a lot of art in any given period (in the case below, the Renaissance) is of a religious nature. Taken at face value, it might seem to the onlooker that these periods of art were special in that more people were inspired to create religious artworks than at any other period. But truth be known, there is a lot of religious art at any time because the wealth was owned by the Churches, particularly the Papacy in the Vatican, and so therefore it only follows that these artworks are created by the most skillful artists at the time. Of course if the Church is paying for it, it will most certainly not be secular.

Pieta - Michelangelo, 1499

Pieta - Michelangelo, 1499

During the 14th century, a popular religious subject was one called The Pieta. The name stems from the Latin words for pity and piety, and is partially at the root of the word “pious”, and is represented as an artistic representation of Mary grieving over the dead Christ. These were very popular in the northern European countries during this time, but in Italy, this scene was rarely seen.

The sculpture above “La Pieta” was a work commissioned by The Vatican as the funeral monument for the French Cardinal Jean de Billheres, but has since moved into St Peter’s Basilica. The artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti, completed this piece in1499, over a year in the making. It depicts a scene where Mary, Jesus’ mother, is seen holding her dead son after he had been lowered down from the cross.

It is most certainly one of the masterworks of art in human history. The skill and craftsmanship shown here by Michelangelo is astounding. But not all is as it seems here. Not everything set in stone is as it seems.

The figures themselves are quite out of proportion. The length of the limbs on Jesus are slightly out of kilter with the rest of his body, and none of Mary’s body can be seen beneath the cascade of gowns flowing around her. Also, a woman of Mary’s size would find it difficult to hold up a fully grown male in this manner. Because the sculpture was carved out of a single piece of stone, one can imagine the sheer weight of this piece, the drapery becoming like a pyramid of stone leading downward to the carved rocks beneath Mary’s feet.

Certainly we can forgive the artist for a little artistic license when making something so seemingly realistic. But remember, Michelangelo was trying to convince you of something. Firstly, that the figures you see before you are real human beings of flesh and blood, draped in cloth, not cleverly manipulated pieces of stone. And secondly, he is trying to convince you that these figures are displaying real human emotion. Mary, upon lowering Jesus from the cross, is feeling pity for her son, and piety for the son of God. A mixed emotion, but one that is carried in the Catholic traditions to this day.

But wait a minute. Something else is not quite right about this.

The interesting thing about the Pieta scene is that it never gets a mention in The Bible. This scene, Mary holding her son, is not actually described anywhere in the New Testament, and the scene was generated out of a fancy of ideas and feelings, much like a comic book where we imagine “What if Batman met The Punisher”. This is a middle-ages version of a mash-up, and this has caused some controversy among the various sects of Christianity. Some even say that “Mary worship” is akin to Satan worship. Others call it “Idolatry”.

Catholicism is obsessed with the Virgin Mary. While many would say that Catholics don’t “worship” her as such, rather that they venerate her as they would any other saint, the prayers, images, candles and churches say otherwise. The idea of The Pieta is to get both of Catholicism’s greatest superheroes in one place at one time, and is set in opposition to the “Mother and Child” paintings that are ever so common, particularly in Orthodox churches. It’s double the bang for your buck, if you will.

We can’t fault Michelangelo for his deception. He was commissioned to produce this work, and is possibly the most skillful artist of this type to have ever lived, so his deception is very convincing. But the biggest deception (apart from the fact that Jesus, if her ever lived, was just a man), is that this scene, though among the most popular in all Catholicism, is a mere pastiche of other ideas. Whether this piece was commissioned for a religious institution or for a secular reason, the story it tells is compelling. It tells us this; we are all human; we shall all die; a child dying before a parent is very sad; death is sad; and being human means being mortal.

Pablo Picasso once famously said:

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

What he means by this is that art is not reality, but a depiction of reality. It is not emotion, but a representation of emotion. There is no person before you, just a lump of rock. Art is the ability to convincingly trick the mind into certain states or emotion and feeling. Is it any wonder then that the church commissioned so much art in the name of God?

An interesting bit of trivia follows this piece. In 1972, a Hungarian born Australian geologist named Laszlo Toth snuck a hammer into St Peter’s Basillica, and proceeded to hack into the statue while yelling  “I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead”. Clearly the man was unhinged in some way, but it shows how much of an effect art can have on the human psyche.

Note: commenters have expanded upon these themse below. Please take a moment to read them also.

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  1. This is now behind what is either plexiglass or glass to prevent such a thing happening again.

    While you are right that the figures are out of proportion, this is only true when viewed perpendicular to the piece.

    Michaelangelo used this technique to greater effect with another piece ‘David’. This was intended to be viewed from below and as such the arms, legs and torso were carved such that when viewed from that position were in proportion, when viewed from a perpendicular angle the figure looks malformed.

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    • Yes the “David” is completely out of proportion, his head is monstrous compared to the rest of his body. Than and his man-parts are diminutive, something I’m sure the model was none too pleased about.

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  2. Hi Martin

    In the final line did you mean to type “effect” ?

    I realise that your intention here is not to discuss art, but all the same you’ve undersold this magnificent piece. A work of genius. I will let Vasari speak:

    It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work, or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pieta was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of the veins are all so wonderful that it is hard to believe that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”

    Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, first published 1550, 2nd edition 1558.

    Quoting you:

    The figures themselves are quite out of proportion. The length of the limbs on Jesus are slightly (?), and none of Mary’s body can be seen beneath the cascade of gowns flowing around her. Also, a woman of Mary’s size would find it difficult to hold up a fully grown male in this manner.

    The above may confuse the casual reader of this post. Is there a word missing where I’ve put (?) ? To make it much clearer what’s going on here: So that Mary can cradle her son the artist has sculpted her such that she would be 6’6″ tall standing up – she’s huge. He has also reduced Jesus from ‘life size’. Her shoulder width & hand size are greater than his.

    Quoting you:

    Certainly we can forgive the artist for a little artistic license when making something so seemingly realistic.

    Forgive him ? There is absolutely nothing to forgive Michelangelo for. He has performed a masterful manipulation of proportion ~ the observer believes. I certainly do.

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    • Indeed, well put. I had problems working out which bits of historical information to leave out, for to be honest, books have been written about this one single sculpture. I merely wished to point out a couple of things about art in general. 1. Nothing is as it appears and 2. There is always more to the story than simply being a sculpture or painting. Thank you for your comments. I welcome more!

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  3. You asked Martin, but you know what the Chinese say about asking…

    Great art is a sign of a vibrant & confident society. Art is a barometer that encapsulates all the ideas of the times. Discover the art of any extinct human society & you will know everything you need to know about the souls that have come & gone.

    What Was:
    When I read architecture at university in the 80’s we had a weekly drawing class ~ the subject always being a human nude, because people are absolutely the hardest thing to represent. As you are aware we have evolved to ‘read’ every nuance of other people. Draw a subtly deformed horse & the error is not apparent to even the most horsey of critics, but try the same experiment with a human subject & at a glance the ‘wrongness’ jars

    Forget ‘David’ (as mentioned by the first poster) the distortion used there is an old trick in Greek & Roman sculpture & also in architecture. The piece that you’re discussing here Martin is of a different order of deception (to use your word) ~ it takes a bit of looking before one realises that Michelangelo is doing what only Michelangelo & a handful of other artists can do. None of that handful are alive & possibly there has only been one comparable ‘talent’ since Edwardian times. This is the tragedy of much of contemporary art.

    What Is:
    An artist MUST understand the effect of his every mark on the audience, but such an exercise is beyond the abilities of all the contemporary artists that I’m aware of ~ at least in painting, drawing & sculpture. Britart for example ~ Imagine photographing the unmade bed, or the pickled shark, or the paedophile pot. Imagine destroying the original object after you’ve taken the snap. Ask yourself what has gone missing & we all know the answer is ‘nothing much’. This is because the camera has captured the one squalid idea in each piece ~ that’s what passes for art today. The spiritual dimension in art was fed by religious belief & that is no longer a convincing creative mode. No artist has stepped forward to fill the yawning gap because it requires an idea that seems to be beyond our imagination at the moment. This is merely a sign of the times.

    What’s Coming ?:
    The hallmarks of religion down the ages: Cut-and-paste, one-size-fits-all, fear of the void, slippery definitions, absurd logic, untruths, deception & putting the boot on the neck.

    We pick over the bones of the zombie religions & it’s old news. We are waking up at last from a nightmare that begun the first day some bloody woman discovered agriculture & the important questions we should be asking are what do we do now, how do we do it & why ?

    The Challenge:
    This is the position we are in NOW & that is why atheist blogs that look backwards or sideways are irrelevant. If we want to rip the running sore of religious indoctrination off our cancerous hides we need to supply a vision that can give succour & a direction in life to every one of us ~ not just the well educated & thoughtful minority

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    • Hi Mike,

      I applaud you for you vision and fervour. However I think you are misunderstanding exactly why it is I’m doing this look into religious art. I’m not hoping to change the world, simply sharing a passion I have for art with others from my perspective. What do I see when i look at things like “La Pieta” or any other artwork? This is why i am embarking on this project. It has been MANY years since I studied art at university, and for me it’s as much of a refresher course in art (and architecture) than it is a chance for others to learn something also. I may get some thing wrong.

      On your point about blogs that “look backwards or sideways”, you say that these are irrelevant? I can’t see why this is so, when so many people are ignorant of the past, why it is exactly that religion is a “running sore”, and why they should care. Sure, it is NOW that we are concerned with, but how can you convince someone that religion is not needed, or no longer relevant, if you can’t show them exactly why?

      Of course moving forward is important, nobody ever claimed otherwise. And I agree with your sentiment asking “what do we do now, how do we do it & why?” This is something that I think all bloggers who use socio-religious topics as their main focus are hoping for. So many do by just bashing religion, but their voices is just as relevant as any.

      But then again, what do I know?

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