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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