Ever since I had the gift of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and viewing the Pieta by Michelangelo, I have been particularly enamored by this wonderful piece of art. The Pieta itself is an extraordinary work, rivaling any other sculpture in its size and detail. The pure beauty of it naturally moves one to thanksgiving and contemplation. However, what has really captivated me are the deeply spiritual truths chiseled into it. When I visited, I had the luck to be with an American seminarian studying in Rome who shared the oral tradition of the piece not found on most art history websites.
The Pieta was originally made to be an altarpiece for a side chapel. It was intended to be the decoration above an altar for one of many niches in one of the many magnificent Renaissance chapels. This context is key, because a closer look at the piece shows that Mary never touches the flesh of Christ’s body. Her left arm remains extended, almost as if to say “Behold” (the Lamb of God…). With her left arm, she shows us both what our sin has done and the depth of His sacrifice and mercy. Her right arm cradles the chest of Christ, although her flowing garments reach up and separate her hand from Christ’s skin. These two ideas immediately bring to mind the priest presenting the Eucharist in mass to the faithful, and the humeral veil used by the priest in Benediction in order to avoid directly touching the monstrance. Michelangelo presents to us a profound reverence for Jesus’ body, which is deeply tied to His sacrifice on the Cross and kept alive by the Church through the priesthood.
We do not often think of this sculpture as a Eucharistic image, but once it was pointed out to me, I couldn’t see it any other way. But really it makes perfect sense—it was designed to go above an altar. And when we understand where it was meant to be placed, the Eucharistic image is heightened. In the piece, Jesus seems to be ever so slightly sliding off the lap of his mother. His right leg is barely held up by Mary’s left leg. Her arms seem to be in a position of letting go as much as they are in a sense presenting His body, as if these actions are the same thing. When viewed above an altar, Mary would appear to gently drop Christ’s body onto the altar where the Eucharistic sacrifice is taking place in time. Michelangelo, in his faithful brilliance, depicts the tangible beauty of a theological truth—that the Eucharistic sacrifice performed at mass is not a new act, but reaches throughout time to participate in and perpetuate the one great act of God on the Cross.
Often, I slip into the mistake of subconsciously separating the doctrinal truths of the Church and the personal truths of my faith. They of course are not separate, but I can fall habit to not letting them inform each other. In other words, I rarely take a doctrine or Church teaching to prayer, but more often rather a personal matter of faith or life. The Pieta is a wonderful example of how expansive the spiritual wealth of the Church is. Through just the medium of art, which itself covers a lot of ground, we can come to see in a whole new light the spiritual beauty of what the Church says, does, and is. Michelangelo’s Pieta specifically has captured my imagination and informed my prayer, and I encourage you to continue to explore the treasure chest of the Church to grow in love and piety to Christ.