The Pieta: A Story in Five Parts

Debra Brehmer

One of Michelangelo’s first major works was his Pieta, which he finished carving from a solid block of Carrara marble in 1500 when he was 23 years old. After he completed this commission, his colleagues in Rome were said to express disbelief that a young and relatively unknown sculptor could create such a remarkable work. Michelangelo’s reaction was to return to the piece and chisel his name broadly down the sash that runs smack between Mary’s breasts. “Michelangelo Buonarroti made this,” he asserts. It was the only sculpture he ever signed.

A work of art is a little like a suitcase, stuffed with issues, ideas and fragments of personal and cultural history. Each viewer who is willing to take the time might unpack it in a different way. With famous works of art that have suffered from over-familiarity, the challenge to see them in a fresh light is even more pronounced. We tend to view famous works of art such as the Mona Lisa or the Pieta as icons rather than peculiar items of a particular time, place and spirit that remain mutable and alive when in relationship to the viewer.

I found that although I had no real interest in the Pieta, that it never grabbed my attention in any particular way, it has followed me for many years and will not let me ignore it. It has somehow implanted itself as part of my life as it has turned up in various guises and places. Its presence is now persistent enough that I think I need to tell the story.

Part I: Mothering

My 10-year-old daughter Rae has always fallen in love with rodents. Her beloved rat Sunny had recently reached the very old age of 2 and one-half and was failing. For weeks he dragged around the cage, not eating or drinking. His back legs became partially paralyzed; he lost weight and his fur coarsened. But he wouldn’t die. Day after day we looked into the cage, hoping Sunny had passed away. Illogically, he hung on. Finally, we scheduled an appointment at the vet to have him “put to sleep.”

I picked Rae up from school. She wrapped Sunny in a little blanket and we drove to the vet. They were very nice and quickly put us in the examining room, where we sat for about fifteen minutes, waiting for the doctor. Rae sat in a chair across from me, holding Sunny in the blanket. We were silent.  At some point I looked up at Rae and saw Sunny draped in her arms, his head resting on the crook of her elbow. Rae’s head was tilted down and her expression was calm and untroubled.

It became perfectly clear to me at that moment why Michelangelo sculpted Mary holding her dead son on her lap the way he did. Mary’s face is calm, pure, radiant and introspective. Michelangelo does not show her in spasms of pain as previous artists from north of the Alps, where the Pieta image was more prevalent, had done. During the Renaissance, people wondered why Michelangelo would sculpt Mary looking so young and untouched by the tragedy. Michelangelo said that because Mary was a virgin, she stayed pure and didn’t age. But that doesn’t really answer the question.  Seeing Rae and Sunny in their last moments together, I realized that the reason Michelangelo’s Mary is calm is because she is still mothering. She is still with her son, holding him, caring for him. Jesus’s fingers on his right hand tell us the whole story: He is still holding on, metaphorically. This is the only place in the sculpture where mother and son remain physically connected. The fabric of Mary’s robe drapes through Christ’s index and middle fingers. Directly above this passage is the deepest and most dramatic carving of the entire sculpture. Michelangelo sculpts a cavern within a gaping fold of Mary’s gown. It leads us to the focal point of where Christ is held and supported by Mary’s right knee. The cavern between folds provides a dark abyss, like an empty womb. It is Christ’s birth and his death, the beginning and the end, quoted by Michelangelo as a black, permanent vacancy.

When it came time for the veterinarian to take Sunny, only then did Rae feel the pain. It was the pain of the final letting go and separation, the pain Mary has not yet felt.

Part of Michelangelo’s genius was finding these loaded moments where emotion is building but it hasn’t been released.  It’s the internal dynamics of emotion that interest him as an artist, or in other words, what cannot be seen by the eye, a parallel to faith. His David sees Goliath in the distance and contemplates what he must do. But Michelangelo shows us only the moment of thought, not action. This seems so abstract and sophisticated. I cannot imagine our contemporary culture having any language to understand this notion of transition, forethought or the loaded implications of stasis. The aftermath of handing Sunny to the vet unleashed an assault of pain and almost incomprehensible “feeling” to Rae, who lunged at me for an embrace. That moment was stabbing, chaotic and confusing. Michelangelo wants us to be able to enter the drama, yes, but he wants us to have the space and order to think about it in a fuller, richer way than if he had simply offered us Mary’s gasps of pain. He wants to help us prepare and give us hope at the same time.

Part II: Seeing

I’m looking at an image of the sculpture right now. It is like a waterfall. The composition is a triangle from Mary’s head at the top down to her pooling wide robe at the bottom. She is a rock, solid and immobile. The elegant stable pyramidal geometry of the Renaissance reflected a time when man felt that the world could be a stable, logical, understandable place. This was in contrast to the mysticism of the Middle Ages where man’s fate was controlled by the unseen and unpredictable, often harsh, forces of God.  The Renaissance thinkers believed that nature could reveal its own scripture and that knowledge and analysis also held keys to eternal truth.

The rhythm of the Pieta begins with Mary’s face, titled downward, calm and radiant. The cloak over her head throws real shadows onto her face, making her moment all the more private and remote from the viewer. There is a downward momentum that moves from her shoulders to the very large horizontal Christ figure on her lap. His right arm falls limp. Her robe and lap widen and the folds become more active, cascading in great sweeps with deeper and deeper carving, as they descend. There’s a diagonal edge of her robe at the bottom that mirrors the diagonal drape of Christ’s arm. Everything falls with a heavy, yet graceful momentum downward to the ground. It’s the weight of our human temporal condition that we must bear, the weight of emotion and the very physical and real weight of the dead body itself: a triad that parallels the triangle of the composition. The physical, spiritual and temporal metastasized in stone. The viewer feels the intensity without even knowing why. It’s this immense, formal downward pull that draws us into the pain, in subtle contrast to the sense of peace and repose on the surface. A perfect, profound paradox.

Only one moment of the sculpture counteracts this cascading, weighty momentum. It is Mary’s left hand. It is open and turned upward. This subtle, simple gesture counterbalances the rest of the piece and symbolizes the resurrection of Christ, or more generally, the continuum of hope, or maybe the act of letting go. Again, Michelangelo opts for the minimal and subtle. We have to discover it and interpret it. He doesn’t knock us over the head with miracles (This is the Renaissance, after all. Calm intellectualism rules).

Part III: The Negotiation of Nothingness

My first encounter with the real Pieta was six years ago in Rome. I was a new single mother of three very young children, one still in diapers. My world had abruptly destabilized to the point where I would wake up each morning dizzy and would stumble to Channel 10’s 6 a.m. yoga show for breathing assistance. My husband had moved out. I was standing in a crater filled with the debacle of accumulation:  house, cars, weed infested gardens, endless piles of wash, pets, boxes of photographs, a baby grand piano. The children were anchors rather than weights, but I wondered whether one person could stem the erosion of composure and order. He, on the other hand, stepped free of this life. With the aloofness of flinging a pair of old pants onto the pile of wash accumulating by my feet, he walked into the day light of a new fantasy.

That initial summer of single-motherhood I had an opportunity to go to Rome with a new male friend. I had hoped this trip would provide a reprieve, a feeling of potential via the distraction of history and art. What I remember most prominently, however, was an inability to connect with anything I was seeing or experiencing.

I wandered through the Roman ruins with no tangible feeling. The ruins bored me and made me feel insecure about what I didn’t know about the Classical world. I enjoyed watching the colonies of wild cats pee on the toppled Corinthian columns.

On that trip, I was illogically drawn instead to bits and pieces of no importance. An old woman on a fancy retail street was selling hand-knit doll clothes and doilies. I bought five or six items. Rome is a man’s world and all the monuments are large and important and my emotional state was in contrast to that sense of strength, idealism and greatness. I related to the poor old lady on the street, hawking her pathetic little offerings of the hand knit. She reminded me of the countless women of history, doing their knitting, nurturing and caretaking while the men built temples. She reminded me of my own sorry state that even Rome couldn’t eradicate. The small gesture of this old woman’s yellow yarn, spun with humility and austerity, was what I wanted to tuck in my pocket and take home.

I sought out Caravaggio’s paintings in various churches thinking he was the drug I needed. He would help me feel something. But even this master of the deep, dark Baroque, whom I adore, could only touch me on an intellectual level. I was feeling nothing.  I dropped coin after coin in the light box of the Cerasi Chapel that provides temporary illumination of the paintings. Craning my neck as the light flickered on, I could see the paintings, but not well enough. The chapel would go dark again and I’d dig in my pockets, find another coin and try again – a pattern too similar to the rhythm of a faltering marriage. I stood for a long time taking in Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul, which 17th century critics dubbed an “accident in a stable.” The Roman soldier Saul has a vision and falls off his horse and is blinded by the holy light and becomes St. Paul. I finally had to give up and leave, turn my back on Caravaggio and walk squinting into the daylight of the piazza.

Fortunately, life was so topsy-turvy then that I didn’t have the mental space to contemplate the sad truth that I was in Rome and seeming not to get a lot out of it. My friend and I jettisoned from one monument to the next, from one great meal, or one great bottle of wine to the comfort of third floor walk-up rooms overlooking streets that smelled of chocolate each morning. I was able to pretend I was getting a full experience. But I wasn’t.

When we entered St. Peter’s and found our way to the right side of the church where the Pieta could almost go unnoticed, I glanced at it and thought, “there it is” behind bullet proof glass since an attack in 1972 by a deranged Australian geologist who assaulted the sculpture with a hammer, whacking off Mary’s nose and one of her arms. It looked small at five feet, eight inches, pushed too far from our viewing space to matter. Ok, let’s go. I started to walk away, moving on to the next “monument,” when my friend summoned me back and started commenting on the piece. He was not an art person but he noticed the moments of the sculpture and somehow helped me slow down and experience the piece as well. Then we really looked and I was able to see this one thing in Rome.  We looked for a long time, sharing our observations. A pool of calm settled within the storm of bustling tourists in St. Peter’s.

We get little out of life unless we slow down and find a way to notice. Moving quickly from tasks or sensations or pleasures does not generate meaning. It does the opposite. We hop from gratification to stimuli to keep ourselves from looking, because looking (in life) is sometimes scary or painful. I think as humans we are afraid that if we look, we might not find anything and that would confirm our deep, pervading sense of emptiness, which we all carry to some extent. We work so hard to avoid confronting the void that Michelangelo sculpts front and center in Mary’s robe/Christ’s shroud. So most people just don’t look. I couldn’t’ look on my own. My friend, gently, helped me. It felt like the first moment of solid ground I had stood on in the six months since my separation from my husband.

Part IV: Oh, the Body

Four years passed. My life regained a sense of stability. I nailed the Italian lady’s doily to the kitchen wall by the stove. Last summer I was able to live and teach in Florence, Italy for a month. My colleague and I decided to take a side trip one weekend to the city of Ravenna, site of the great Byzantine churches with their lavish mosaics. We literally gasped at the beauty of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum. The local art museum was having a show of work that included Jackson Pollock. We thought, “Pollock in Ravenna,’ how strange. We entered the small museum and seemed to be the only visitors there. The Pollock painting was part of a show about Romanticism, a perversely curated endeavor that made little sense to us (but all the text was in Italian). What was neat, though, was the way they enshrined the Pollock painting like an altarpiece. They gave it its own room, with dim lights and made it look like the queen of heaven.

Before we went upstairs to see that show, however, we noticed a plaster cast of a figure in the hallway. We went to look at it because it was near the bathroom. It turned out that the cast was actually the body of Christ from the Pieta and that it had been directly cast from the original. It was just the body of Christ, no Mary holding it.

It looked dusty and dejected and weirdly positioned in the hall as if the museum didn’t quite know what to do with it. My colleague and I started looking at it. We became amazed at the details of Christ’s veins in his arms and the undulation of the muscles in the carving. You cannot see the details of the Pieta in St. Peters because it is positioned far from the viewer and protected. But this Jesus was right at our level and we could walk around it and get as close as we wanted. I don’t remember which one of us first very hesitantly reached out to the sculpture, one finger moving across time and space like God reaching for Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. We looked at each other and laughed at how ridiculous we felt. Then we looked around the hall and saw no one nearby.

We became a bit more brazen. Natanya moved her finger over Christ’s hand, noting the beautiful gesture of the carving. I ran my finger down Christ’s arm. This felt enormously wrong to both of us. Unknowingly, Natanya and I had fallen headlong into the central debate (or one could say triumph) of the Renaissance: spirituality and sensuality co-mingling for the first time. Michelangelo knew this all too well – the great battle between our human condition and desires (the needs of the body) and the higher realm of our spiritual longings (the needs of the soul). They were able to meet briefly in a Neo-Platonic embrace in the Renaissance and Natanya and I were way too intimately experiencing this. For Michelangelo, whose sexuality is undocumented, historians speculate that his main love may have been an aristocratic youth named Tommaso De Cavalieri, 34 years his junior. There are about 300 poems and madrigals that Michelangelo wrote to him. The passion, however, was perhaps unrequited, leaving Michelangelo in a lifelong celibate spasm of frustration and yearning, all of that mixed with his great devotional commitment.

We continued to look around for museum guards. None. We looked for security cameras. None. We looked at each other. We traced the carving of Christ’s lips. We let our hands slide discretely down his chest. We ran our fingers over his calf. Speechless and committing such sacrilege yet also fully feeling and experiencing the incomprehensible subtleties and mastery of Michelangelo’s carving, we silently, almost ritualistically felt the body of Christ. After a good 30 minutes of this, we glanced at our hands. They were black with dirt. The sculpture had probably not been dusted or cleaned for a decade or two or three. We stood there a bit stupefied, not with the blood of Christ on our hands, but the dirt: evidence of our transgression.

We fled to the washroom to erase the deed. I can no longer look at the Pieta without thinking of it as an overtly sensual piece. Christ, Michelangelo tells us, is a god, but it is his human vulnerability, beauty, radiance, and sensuality that provide the proof. And it is not sensuality devoid of sexuality (if there is such a thing). Christ is both a man and a god. He is tormented, undoubtedly, in the same way that Michelangelo feels both torment and intimacy within the conflation of the physical and spiritual desire.  Michelangelo seems to be saying that to lose oneself in the sensual is also a door to the higher realm: Neo-Platonic thinking again. The Church wouldn’t endorse this point of view for long.

Part V: Mike in Milwaukee

There is a full-scale bronze copy of Michelangelo’s Pietaat the Haggerty Museum of Art on the Marquette campus in Milwaukee (it has since been moved to the Italian Community Center). This is no joke. It is something that most people don’t know. Considering my awkward history with this sculpture, I think it is especially ironic and odd that it is HERE.

This full-sized bronze was cast directly from Michelangelo’s original. It is said that only two other full scale bronze copies of the Pieta exist in the world. Shortly after this one was cast in 1945, the Italian government outlawed full scale reproduction  of monumental works. Created by the Marinelli Foundry in Florence, the mold used for the bronze was said to have existed for several hundred years prior to the 1945 casting. In 1964, Boston Store was doing some kind of Renaissance Days promotion and purchased the sculpture, shipping the 1,300 pound object to Milwaukee. When its Renaissance theme ended, Boston Store offered the Pieta to the Milwaukee Art Museum. At some point, the Haggerty expressed an interested in the piece and ownership transferred to Marquette University.

The Pieta, with its deep chestnut brown patina, has sat in the old master’s gallery of the museum for some 30 years. It’s left the museum only twice: once for a Yonker’s Italian Daze event in 1984 and once for the Italian Community Center’s anniversary (1991).

From the initial tapping of Michelangelo’s chisel on a hunk of white marble, to the release of an exact copy of this art work some 400 years later, to its arrival in Milwaukee, is indeed an odd chain of happenstance. We are talking nearly two tons of sacred/aesthetic matter here, landing like a feather in a retail joint in an industrial Midwestern city with nary an eye-brow raised.  We’re talking about the fact that this “object” is still here, totally displaced, and still uncomfortably fitted into any context be it church, museum or bowling alley because of its status as  “reproduction.”

Is the Milwaukee Pieta worthy of some veneration as an art object, does it have value and meaning as one of only two bronze casts of the original? Does the Milwaukee Pieta have something to offer the viewer? Does it allow us to see Michelangelo’s work in some ways better than the experience the original in St. peter’s provides? Should this Pieta be a tourist attraction?

The Haggerty Museum perennially discusses whether it should be moved.  It takes up a lot of space in the Old Master’s room and some art curators consider it “junk.” There is talk about moving it into a church on university grounds.  If more people knew about this sculpture, however, would they come to see it?  Would the very same people who fly thousands of miles to eagerly file by the real Pietà in Rome be interested in actually being able to see the Pietà up close?  Or do we stampede to St.  Peter’s in quest of something that  has nothing to do with actually looking at a work of art.  Are we just desperately trying to convince ourselves that we are having “real” experiences by seeing “real” things, but never actually coming much closer to points of connection than if we had seen it on television?

I don’t know what to think about the lonely, displaced Milwaukee Pietà.  It looks a little strange in bronze – one seamless molten lump.  Mary and Jesus appear somewhat “exposed” in the museum space, surrounded by paintings of mostly later centuries, kind of like Amish travelers at a bus stop.   Yet, you can walk right up to the piece and move around three sides.  This is the ONLY way to see how Michelangelo’s composition, which from the front looks very stable, still and poised, is actually full of looping, cascading curves and complex contours.  Moving to the side by Christ’s feet provides an unbelievably different feeling than viewing the sculpture from the front.  You cannot see this at St. Peter’s.  You can only see this in Milwaukee.

The Frick Museum in New York City owns a 14 inch bronze of the Pietà and seems to keep it as a respected part of the permanent collection.  Even during Michelangelo’s life, copies of the Pietà were generated.  The sixteenth century did not have the horror of the “unauthentic” that we do.  Making copies was the only way to allow an image to circulate or reach a broader audience.  Nanni di Baccio Bilio made a full sized marble version in 1549 for the church of Santo Spirito in Florence.  Battista Vazquez made a copy for Avila Cathedral in Spain in 1561.  The question is whether these copies, made by artisans in close proximity to the original, are meaningful works of art in and of themselves.  They certainly were considered precious in previous centuries.

If the Milwaukee Pietà was cast in 1945 in Florence, World War II had just ended and the supplies of metal (copper and tin) needed for the foundry would have only recently become available again.  There is no record of who the original patron was for this sculpture.

The notion of “value” is an interesting one.  We choose to value things like gold and diamonds because they are relatively rare and they sparkle.  But value and meaning can easily be manipulated. Value is an abstraction.   It is mostly market driven, floating, in flux.  The Vatican and the Catholic Church know this very well.

In the Middle ages, the Church earned a great deal of income from “relics,” the body parts of saints and others displayed in churches, with rumors that they could generate miraculous cures, etc.  Pilgrims traveled far distances to come in contact with the relics and leave monetary offerings in response to (hopefully) receiving favors.  The Church also sold “indulgences” which were pardons from personal sin.  There were some objections to all of this in the 1500s with the Protestant Reformation.

It is interesting that just a few years ago, in 2002, the Vatican granted permission for Mary’s head from the Pietà to be cast by a Florida foundry into 3,000 bronze busts (selling for $15,000 each), 1,000 silver casts (selling for $30,000 each) and twenty-five gold casts (at $1 million each).  An article in the New York Times states that this is the first time a reproduction of the Pietà has been allowed.  (Well, not quite, as we know in Milwaukee).  The Madonna busts are being sold to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the statue’s presentation to the church.  Along with a purchase, each buyer gets a private tour of the Vatican Treasury and the Vatican Museum.  Part of the profits will go to the Vatican for upkeep and restoration of its art.

One could argue that casting Mary’s head in gold multiples might undermine the value and integrity of the original work of art.  It’s hard to view this “project” as anything but a horrifically misguided conflation of consumerism and religion with some crass notions of “beauty” or preciosity thrown in.

How do we determine the cultural, civic or personal value of the Milwaukee Pietà? Is it more akin to Mary’s head cast in platinum (a trinket, an abomination) or is it a dignified and rare, historic copy? When we visit Florence and look at Ghiberti’s famous bronze door panels on the Baptistery, we don’t seem to fret over the fact that we are viewing reproductions.  The real panels are protected in the museum.  When crowds gather around Michelangelo’s David outside the Palazzo della Signoria they don’t care that they are staring at a full-scale reproduction. The copy allows us to see the sculpture in its original site.  The real David is tucked away from the elements, pigeons and vandals in a museum.

Feeling forced to come to a conclusion here, I’m going to say that we should value and enjoy the Milwaukee Pietà. Dust it off and air it out.   We’ve got the Brewers, the Bucks, the Packers and the Pietà.  Let’s talk it up.   We should have one day a year when the public can touch it – share in the pleasure of running one’s hands over Mary’s hands or tracing the veins in Christ’s arm.  Sacrilegious you say?  No.  Casting Mary’s head in gold is sacrilegious.