The pietà is a common theme throughout the history of Western art; it refers to a work of art that depicts the Virgin Mary with her son Jesus Christ after Jesus’s death and descent from the cross. Depicting the mother’s love for her son after he endures great suffering, the word “pietà” roughly translates to “pity” or “compassion.”
Pietà, circa 1498 to 1499, by Michelangelo. Marble Sculpture, 68.5 inches by 76.7 inches by 27.1 inches. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Image by Stanislav Traykov (Public Domain)
One of the most famous pietàs is by the renaissance artist Michelangelo. At the end of the 15th century, at the age of 24, Michelangelo finished the Pietà, commissioned by a cardinal named Jean de Billheres for a chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Michelangelo claimed that he created the piece from a perfect block of Carrara marble, allowing him to achieve a high degree of detail and polish. The finished product looked less like marble and more like clothed human beings.
His work depicts the Virgin Mary saddened by the death of her son, Jesus, whom she now holds in her lap. She has compassion for her son’s suffering but accepts his fate. The slightly raised brow reveals a very subtle hint of sadness upon the youthful Mary’s face.
Michelangelo was criticized for his young depiction of the Virgin Mary. She appears to be around the same age as her son. Michelangelo’s response to this criticism was that women who remain chaste retain their youth and beauty.
The Virgin Mary is also depicted very large in comparison to Jesus. Michelangelo most likely did this to provide a surface for Jesus’s body; her body needs to appear larger if it is going to be able to hold and support the body of Jesus. The two religious figures together, however, are composed according to a triangle—a typical shape by which Renaissance art was composed.
The Pietà was the only work of art to which Michelangelo signed his name. As the story goes, Michelangelo overheard viewers attributing the work to another artist when it was first unveiled. In response to this, Michelangelo locked himself with the sculpture one night, signing his name on the sash draped across the Virgin Mary’s chest.
At first glance, the words on the sash read, “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this.” But according to Carl Smith, in his book “What’s in a Name? Michelangelo and the Art of Signature,” the signature is combined with strange dots and symbols which, when considered together, could mean “The Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti, a messenger from God, made this.”
Anthony van Dyck
After the Renaissance, and by the time of the 17th-century Baroque, painter Anthony Van Dyck was composing his own Pietà. Instead of just depicting Virgin Mary and Jesus like Michelangelo, Van Dyck includes Mary Magdalene and St. John.
Jesus’s body is shown draped in white, lifelessly reclining against a rock, while the Virgin Mary sits behind him. Though Jesus is dead, his halo still shines from his head, indicating that the divinity of his soul is alive and well.
The Virgin Mary is dressed in blue, her eyes—red with tears—looking sullenly to heaven. The pain on her face expresses the compassion she has for her son’s sufferings. The palm of her left hand is open, and she gestures as if presenting her son to heaven.
Dressed in red and gold, Mary Magdalene kneels to the right of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. She too has an expression of sadness. She takes Jesus’s hand in hers and kisses it. St. John leans into the picture frame from the far right and contemplates the scene.
At the bottom left are the crown of thorns, the paper that was nailed at the top of the cross that read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jews,” and a basin and sponge with which the Virgin Mary cleaned her son’s body.
Van Dyck increased the drama of the composition in ways typical of Baroque art. He forewent the static and calm triangular composition of the Renaissance artists in favor of more curves, movement, and emotion, in an attempt to more fully relay the drama of the event.
Almost 250 years later, William Bouguereau—one of the foremost representatives of the French Academic style of painting—painted his own version of the Pietà, partly inspired by the death of his eldest son.
In the center of the composition is the Virgin Mary, dressed in all black to mourn the death of her son. She firmly holds his lifeless body in her arms and stares out toward the viewer with a pained expression. The two figures possess gilded halos, which represent their divinity.
At the bottom right of the composition, we again see the crown of thorns, the basin of water, and the sponge with which Jesus’s body was purified.
Framing the two central figures are nine angels mourning the scene with different expressions and body language. The nine angels wear the colors of the rainbow, which reiterates God’s promise to renew the world after Noah’s flood in Judaic traditions; here, it again represents renewal, but this time of the human soul after the sacrifice of Jesus in Christian traditions.
Interestingly enough, Bouguereau put the personal pain of losing his own son into the expression of the Virgin Mary. For Bouguereau, who was depressed for six months after his son’s death, the painting became a way to renew his own spirit.
With this in mind, the colors of the angels’ robes in combination with the black and white worn by the Virgin Mary and Jesus may also represent the full palette of paint by which the artist made his creations. In other words, all of the figures in this painting are possible representations of the idea that the divine is responsible for both the renewal of one’s spirit and of artistic creation.
3 Different Approaches to a Relatable Story
We’ve come to see three different approaches in depicting the love a mother has for her suffering son. Michelangelo idealized the Virgin Mary and Jesus into a calm and accepting scene of suffering. Van Dyck dramatized the scene in an attempt to emotionally touch as many viewers as possible. Bouguereau created a powerful image by using his own personal, painful experience as inspiration.
The one thing that is consistent across all of these approaches, however, is the depiction of compassion itself. We may not all have kids, but most of us have someone in our lives that we care deeply about—or maybe we care deeply about humanity as a whole. Everyone suffers irrespective of socioeconomic class, race, gender, and so on. These images serve, at least in part, as encouragement to be compassionate toward those who suffer.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.