July 20, 2018

Daniel Jepsen: The Two Pietàs, Part 2

Yesterday’s post examined the spiritual aspect of Michelangelo’s great Roman Pietà. In particular, we noted how the two figures appear idealized [despite their sorrow], reflecting the Neo-Platonic ideals of beauty on earth reflecting God’s beauty; the beautiful figures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are echoing the beauty of the Divine. Michelangelo was not striving for historical accuracy, but for the ideal, the transcendent, the eternal. Mary and Jesus represent, at this level, not murdered son and grieving older mother. Rather, they represent idealized man and woman, together, in their triangular unity, reflecting the image of the Triune God.

And this beauty, especially of the idealized human form, is a both a reflection of God’s beauty and a climbing pathway in which the person of perception may ascend, in some way, to heaven itself.

Near the end of his life the great artist Michelangelo began work on another Pietà, utterly unlike the one he completed at age 24.

Fifty years had passed since Michelangelo had completed the Roman Pietà. No one remains unchanged in their thoughts and values over half a century, especially a person with a mind like Michelangelo’s. Always a religious man, his maturing years had brought a maturing spirituality, and a deepening ambivalence about what art is for, and what it can do.

At the age of 61 he began a deep friendship with a 46-year-old poet, Vittoria Colonna. The great artist addressed some of his finest sonnets to her, made drawings for her, and spent long hours in her company. Vittoria became his been deepest confidante, and every Sunday afternoon they sat on a balcony at the convent where she lived in Rome, discussing  the deep theological questions of the day: What is the nature of grace? What is the nature of sin? Who has religious authority on Earth? They had watched the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation first-hand, and they were both keenly interested in theology.

Colonna also conveyed to him the intellectual and religious concerns of her scholarly, cultured, very catholic circles of friends, including clerical reformers within the Catholic Church, who were seeking to heighten religious awareness and personal holiness.

In 1547 Colonna died, leaving Michelangelo bereft. He was also buffeted by the ailments of age, guilt over unfinished projects, and disillusions over the treachery of friends.

He turned to poetry, picturing her as a great fire, warming his old age.

But Heaven has taken away from me the splendor
Of the great fire that burned and nourished me;
I am left to be a coal, covered and burning,
And if Love will not offer me more timber
To raise a fire, in me there will not be
A single spark, all into ashes turning.

In the year Colonna died, Michelangelo would begin work on a new Pieta. This was to be something special to him, a final coda giving a backwards meaning to all he had done before. He worked, not on commission, but after hours, in privacy, wearing a thick hat holding a candle for illumination. This pieta would go on his own tomb. And, for the first time, he carved his own face into a sculpture.

He never finished. In fact, in his 80th year, after working on it for over half a decade, Michelangelo would take a hammer and chisel and begin to destroy it. Vasari, his first biographer, says only the intervention of a servant saved it from total damage.

Michelangelo reluctantly allowed the pieces to be gathered and later restored by another sculptor, who also added the face of Mary Magdalen (in an unfortunately passive expression).

This Pieta now resides in Florence, in a small museum behind the Duomo. The Florentine Pieta [also called the Disposition] departs not only from the form of the Roman work, but also in the tone. Obviously, the figures are different. Besides Mary and Jesus there is a male figure in the back, likely Nicodemus, lifting Christ down from the cross by the band around his chest. The face of Nicodemus is Michelangelo’s.

In his earlier works, each person had their own psychic space, even when they were touching in some ways. In the Roman Pieta, the virgin looks down, seemingly lost in thought, upon the body of her son. But in the Florentine version, Mary’s [unfinished] face is pressed against Christ’s head in a passionate display of love and devotion as she reaches under his left arm to clasp the body being lowered from the cross.

Nowhere is the difference between the two pietas more visible than in the body of Christ [the only part finished].  Instead of the languid and passive tone of the Roman Pieta, here the suffering of Jesus is dramatic and centralized; The left arm is distended and torqued, the abdomen twisted and bent. The head slumped over.

Why the great difference between the two Pietas? Why the self-portrait? Most importantly, why did the great sculptor attempt to destroy his work,something he never did to any of his other pieces (though he left many unfinished)?

I do not know the answers to all these questions. The master did not often explain his artwork and actions. But I wonder if in the 50 years since he had carved the idealized perfection of the Roman Pieta, his ideas of what really constituted beauty had changed. He no longer saw the ultimate expression of the beauty of God in the idealized human body (as in the first Pieta) but in the broken and suffering body of the incarnate one, the God-man. A man in his 70’s has a completely different view of life than that same man in his early 20’s. For Michelangelo, I believe, the real beauty of God is not now seen in the perfection of the human body, that cosmic point of intersection between the realms of matter and spirit. Rather, God’s beauty is seen in the ugly, torqued and twisted body of the God who has died for us.

Reading further between the lines, perhaps he took up the chisel to erase his work because even his great skill was maddeningly unequal to the task of showing this beauty adequately.

As I say, I do not know for sure what went through Michelangelo’s mind.  But I do know that as I stood before the Florentine Pieta, at age 55, it’s incompleteness, its unsmoothed chisel strokes, its broken beauty . . . all these resonated with the disillusioned, broken part of my heart more profoundly than the earlier Pieta ever could. I feel like a failure much more than I did as a young man. My aging body reminds me that I will never have time to make life what I want it to be, to make myself what I want to be.  Perfection is laughingly out of reach; I grasp for adequacy. Regrets circle overhead like buzzards. But there is, by God’s grace, still a profound beauty in the brokenness.  Ultimately, I have no power for beauty or rightness at all, except to, like Michelangelo in the sculpture, cling to the dying God.

Next to the sculpture is a sonnet inscribed on the wall; It is by Michelangelo, from about the time he was carving by candlelight this gravestone piece. As always, he sums it up better than any of us can:

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.

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.

Pieta. Marble statue (1550)

Comments

  1. how gravity pulls
    us down into deep silence
    where our lives began

  2. when my life is done
    may I also in His arms
    eternally rest

  3. Burro [Mule] says:

    At the age of 61 he began a deep friendship with a 46-year-old poet, Vittoria Colonna. The great artist addressed some of his finest sonnets to her, made drawings for her, and spent long hours in her company. Vittoria became his been deepest confidante, and every Sunday afternoon they sat on a balcony at the convent where she lived in Rome, discussing the deep theological questions of the day: What is the nature of grace? What is the nature of sin? Who has religious authority on Earth? They had watched the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation first-hand, and they were both keenly interested in theology.

    Colonna also conveyed to him the intellectual and religious concerns of her scholarly, cultured, very catholic circles of friends, including clerical reformers within the Catholic Church, who were seeking to heighten religious awareness and personal holiness.

    More than anything else in the above article, I found myself deeply saddened not by the difference between the two statues, or that Michelangelo felt the need to repudiate his final masterpiece, but that two great artists should meet on Sunday afternoons, ‘discussing the deep theological questions of the day’. Maybe the weave of the world was thicker and more bonded in their day, but I cannot imagine for the life of me imagine Tony Smith and Charles Bukowski meeting on a Sunday afternoon to do anything similar. I imagine that Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna were devout Christians along the parameters set down by Christianity 1.0; they were catholic Christians, baptized into the Roman communion, following her teachings and disciplines as best they could. To the best of my knowledge, which is scanty, they underwent no “bolt-of-Jesus-lightning” moment or conversion, yet their works exhibit a grasp of the contents of Christian teaching that even the most advanced Christianity 2.0 Christian seems incapable of expressing.

    Ursula Le Guin expresses it better than I can;

    “There is a hole in the world, and the light is running out of it. And the words go with the light. Did you know that? My son sits staring all day at the dark, looking for the hole in the world.”

    “It’s that way with everything; they don’t know the difference. Like what one of them said to the headman last night, ‘You wouldn’t know the true azure from blue mud. . . .’ They complain about bad times, but they don’t know when the bad times began; they say the work’s shoddy, but they don’t improve it; they don’t even know the difference between an artisan and a spell-worker, between handicraft and the Art Magic. It’s as if they had no lines and distinctions and colors clear in their heads. Everything’s the same to them; everything’s grey.”

  4. As I said yesterday, your post and experience with Michelangelo’s “Pieta”s reminds me of Henry Nouwen’s spiritual re-awakening in viewing Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” as shared in his fine book of the same title. This one reminds me even more so than yesterday’s post, because of this…

    “But I do know that as I stood before the Florentine Pieta, at age 55, it’s incompleteness, its unsmoothed chisel strokes, its broken beauty . . . all these resonated with the disillusioned, broken part of my heart more profoundly than the earlier Pieta ever could. I feel like a failure much more than I did as a young man. My aging body reminds me that I will never have time to make life what I want it to be, to make myself what I want to be. Perfection is laughingly out of reach; I grasp for adequacy. Regrets circle overhead like buzzards. But there is, by God’s grace, still a profound beauty in the brokenness. Ultimately, I have no power for beauty or rightness at all, except to, like Michelangelo in the sculpture, cling to the dying God.”

    Very much akin to Nouwen’s experience and probably similar to what Rembrandt felt while painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Very nicely said, Daniel.

  5. Sounds like his art was a spiritual stumbling block which he came to see late in life. It kept him comfortably away from the cross by the sound of that last quote. What a terrible realization if that is the case. “What does it profit a man….”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I think you’re reading a ready-made “Tsk-tsk” sermon into it.

      What I see in the contrast between the two Pietas is the first is Perfect Archetype from youthful Idealism and the second is Gritty Realism from the experience of life.

      “Oh I was so much older then —
      I’m younger than that now.”

  6. When the last leaf falls,
    who will know, mark its passing,
    see it to its end?