Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the late 1540s, an aging Michelangelo embarked on what he intended to be his culminating sculptural work, commonly known as the Florentine Pietà. Still heavily tasked with official commissions—foremost among them the rebuilding of St. Peter’s—and sometimes incapacitated by kidney stones, he worked on the Pietà at night, wearing a cap of thick paper with a candle. His idea that the sculpture would decorate a church altar in front of which he would be interred was never realized. This Pietà, which reposes in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, is far from complete. In fact, it had to be partially reassembled by another sculptor after Michelangelo himself mutilated it, for reasons that cannot be known with certainty.

The centerpiece of this larger-than-life-size sculpture, carved from a single block of Carrara marble, is Christ’s dead body. Just lowered from the cross, it is supported by his mother on one side and the Magdalen on the other. The hooded Pharisee Nicodemus, who is modeled on Michelangelo, stands behind them, stooping gently over the almost totally nude Christ. The Christ is conceived in the monumental terms of classical sculpture. His twisting body is limp, yet the musculature remains animated. Michelangelo’s lifelong obsession with the male torso has not waned. And yet it’s difficult to attribute an erotic intention to this torso or to the figure as a whole. Indeed, to compare it with the young male ignudi arrayed on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1512) is to realize that Michelangelo’s art changed along with his spiritual life as he grew older.

The chapel ceiling’s twenty ignudi—whose main formal inspirations were two masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture, the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoön—manifest the heightened sensuality of Michelangelo’s youth. Just as importantly, they reflect Plato’s interpretation of eros in his Symposium, which Michelangelo must have encountered after entering the household of Lorenzo de Medici at age fifteen, when he was already recognized as a prodigy. Another member of Lorenzo’s household was the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, a renowned scholar and priest who, as one of the principal thinkers of Renaissance humanism, endeavored to harmonize Platonism with Christian belief. The young Michelangelo was imbued with the conviction that the contemplation of beautiful forms can serve as a step on a ladder that leads man out of the world of the flesh and into the realm of the spirit. Michelangelo’s ignudi are instruments of this ascent. The various moods they exhibit—pensiveness, melancholy, languor, alertness, amusement, agitation, alarm—represent the unstable passionate states bound up with our mortal existence. Furthermore, they mediate between the domain of the visionaries who foretold Christ’s coming—prophets and sibyls—and the yet more exalted sphere, crowning the chapel’s vault, where the creation and other divine revelations from Genesis appear. The ceiling as a whole hails the Old Testament as prologue to the New Testament gospel of salvation.

The Christ figure of the Florentine Pietà itself derives from ancient sculpture. (It also exhibits the profound anatomical knowledge Michelangelo acquired through dissection, which he first practiced while still a teenager at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Florence.) Christ’s head, slumped to one side, and his elongated neck echo another Hellenistic masterpiece, which shows the body of Patroclus being held up by Menelaus. Michelangelo knew this sculpture well in the form of a Roman copy that is now housed in the open-air Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

But there is a difference. Unlike the Sistine ignudi and many other figures he depicted, there is a powerful bond between those in the Florentine Pietà. Typically, Michelangelo isolated figures in his compositions within their own psychological space, regardless of whether physical contact between them indicated intimacy. The meditative Virgin with the crucified Christ in her lap in Michelangelo’s earlier Pietà sculpture (1499) in St. Peter’s is just one example. But in the Florentine version, the Virgin’s cheek is pressed firmly against Christ’s head in a passionate expression of love and devotion as she reaches under his left arm to clasp the band by which he has been lowered from the cross. Nicodemus beholds the two of them with empathy, one hand poised behind the Virgin’s shoulder in a comforting gesture, the other holding up Christ’s right arm. The hand of that arm bends inward, as if in a deliberate act, to touch the kneeling Magdalen’s back, while she holds the upper part of Christ’s bent right leg. Thanks to the intertwining of the figures in Michelangelo’s design, the Magdalen’s integration into the experiences of Mother and Son is clear, although her finished face, superficially handled by the artist who repaired the sculpture, is youthful, innocent, rather impassive, and unconvincing as a Magdalen. She gazes out at us, beckoning us to behold what the master powerfully portrayed as a family bound by ties of love in its most spiritual form.

Despite its incompleteness—especially evident in the Virgin’s face—and the very visible cracks left by its reconstruction, the sculpture is so powerful that the viewer does not quickly notice that Christ’s left leg is missing. That leg straddled his mother’s lap, with the foot touching the ground. A shallow channel in the Virgin’s lap reveals the trajectory. It appears Michelangelo damaged the leg so badly that the restoring sculptor, Tiberio Calcagni, cut it off at the upper thigh. A square hole shows where Calcagni intended to insert a replacement leg, but he never carved it.

Michelangelo’s assault on this Pietà—which took place in 1555, the year he turned eighty—has sometimes been explained as resulting from exasperation with flaws in the marble. The great Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari speaks of the stone being riddled with emery, a very hard mineral that caused sparks to fly from the master’s chisel. But Vasari also cites a formal perfectionism that drove Michelangelo to abandon numerous sculptures before completing them. The fact remains that the Pietà is the only one he ever mutilated. Apart from the left leg, Michelangelo severed the left arms of Christ and the Virgin in their entirety, along with Christ’s right forearm and the Magdalen’s right arm. Vasari quotes the master as saying his attack would have continued but for a servant’s intervention. The jagged cracks above Christ’s left elbow are one of the first things the viewer notices about the work. Obviously, anger and frustration had been building up over time. Perhaps Michelangelo’s furious impulse to break the sculpture had deeper motivations that involved profound doubts about himself and his life’s work.

Michelangelo knew that man is the cosmic point of intersection between the realms of matter and spirit. The structure and proportions of the human body are integral to God’s supreme organic creation, and therefore the human figure is art’s supreme symbolic form. Yet the spiritual melancholy of his later years reinforced his sense of art’s futility, even danger, insofar as it divorced sensuality from the faith. As a young man he had heard the fiery admonitions of the anti-humanist reformer Savonarola. The formally crude and emotionally bleak frescoes portraying the blinding of Saul on the way to Damascus and the crucifixion of St. Peter in the Vatican’s Cappella Paolina, which he painted during the 1540s, suggest a bonfire of the vanities, as if in delayed obedience to Savonarola’s commands. The suffering of the Christ of the Florentine Pietà is evoked by a dramatically distended and torqued left arm, as well as by powerful anatomical displacements within the bent, twisted torso. Even so, its undeniable majesty may have come to seem a sensual defilement in Michelangelo’s eyes.

A famous sonnet, displayed in the Museo dell’Opera room with the sculpture, reinforces the idea that the Florentine Pietà’s mutilation resulted in large part from a kind of spiritual agony. Michelangelo wrote it at the time he was working on the sculpture. The sonnet, composed with death and judgment in prospect, laments youthful folly.

So that finally I see
How wrong the fond illusion was
That made art my idol and my king, 
Leading me to want what harmed me.

It ends with an exhortation:

Let neither painting nor carving any longer calm
My soul turned to that divine love
Who to embrace us opened his 
arms upon the cross.

The Pietà, of course, fulfills the sonnet’s concluding command. The sculpture is the scarred, incomplete, inevitably imperfect evocation of “that divine love.” At the same time, its power is intensified by the beauty of Christ’s body. This ravaged masterpiece teaches us just how high the self-doubting Michelangelo rose in his arduous, lifelong climb up that Platonic ladder of love.

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift