Ten things you need to know about Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Pietà (c. 1500) Carraca Marble, 5’8”, St. Peter’s, Vatican.  
  Commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Billheres as a tomb stone

The Pieta references the death of Jesus on the Friday of the Jewish Passover, what Christians came to know as Good Friday. Ten things to know about Michelangelo’s Pieta:

1. The word pieta is Latin for pity. The idea that one can feel emotion, in this case, sorrow or pity, through viewing a work of art is in keeping with the Renaissance ideal of humanism, in which the human experience is worthy of contemplation and reflection.  

2. The composition is in the shape of a triangle, a reference to the trinity. 

3. The Pieta is a northern Renaissance concept. Mary holding her dead son after the crucifixion is not mentioned by any of the gospel writers.  

4. If Mary stood up, she would be much larger in scale than Jesus. This is a compositional decision on Michelangelo’s part to ensure she remains central to the composition.  

5. Mary is youthful, much younger looking than she would be if Jesus is said to be 33 years old upon his death. Her youth and beauty are in keeping with Renaissance ideals of beauty in art. 

6. Mary’s breastplate reads “Michelangelo the Florentine made this.” This is in reference to Rome, where the sculpture was carved, being a separate City-State from the City-State of Florence, where Michelangelo is from. Florence and Rome were rivals at the time and Michelangelo wanted to celebrate the home team. This is the only work of art Michelangelo ever signed. He signed it because of rumors that the sculpture was the work of an older artist. 

7. Christ’s left foot is already experiencing rigor-mortis, the stiffening of the joints upon death. Michelangelo was aware of rigor-mortis from dissecting human bodies, which was forbidden by the Church at the time. He felt enormous guilt for engaging in this practice, however, the knowledge he gained strengthens the emotional impact of the sculpture.

Rigor-mortis on Christ’s left foot. =

8. He believed the pieta was already in the marble, he just needed to help the composition release itself from the confines of the stone. He slept in the quarry at night so he could see the sunrise over the block of marble, and “saw” the sculpture within. Thus, he took little credit for actually carving the sculpture.

9. The finished sculpture was rolled on logs from his studio to the church at night with the help of local carpenters.

10. Michelangelo was just 25 years old when he carved the Pieta.

Highlights from the Topsfield Library Art Collection.

For a small town, Topsfield, MA. is home to a lovely library with an impressive art collection, much of it purchased through the Gould fund (Robert Gould Shaw was the captain of the Massachusetts 54th all-Negro regiment during the Civil War made famous in the movie Glory).

This lecture was presented on Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 7:00 and highlighted the architecture of the library and a few examples from the art collection. As the presenter of the lecture, I told the story behind some of the more unique pieces; what I like to refer to as “the art in the art.”

Notice any similarities between Millet’s The Sower on the left and the mural from the library lobby on the right? We will review this oddity during the lecture.

2021 art history lecture series

The story behind The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane sculptures at Trinity Church, Topsfield. Thursday, February 4, 7:00-8:00PM. Free registration.

Photo: Kindra Clineff

Like many residents of Topsfield I have long admired of the Walker Hancock sculptures, The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane located at the entrance to Trinity Church. Until I began researching their history, I did not know the story behind them. What I uncovered is a remarkable story of their creation and the three men whose dedication to art, religious tolerance, and civil rights made them possible.
During this lecture, I will share this story of the patron, William Appleton Coolidge; the sculptor, Walker Hancock, and the Episcopal Seminarian and martyr of the Civil Rights Movement, Jonathon Daniels, to whom the sculptures are dedicated. Registration is limited to 100 people, so register soon.
Register for the lecture on the library website.

Highlights from the Topsfield Library Art Collection. Thursday, February 11, 7:00-8:00PM

Some of the examples from the library collection.

The Topsfield Town Library is home to an impressive collection of art from traditional oil paintings to contemporary sculpture. In this one hour lecture, we will learn about just a few of the highlights from this distinguished collection. Register for this free lecture on the library website.