Theology of the Pietá

From Zenit's Elizabeth Lev comes this nice explanation of Michelangelo's Pietá.

Art of Compassion

Last week on Sept. 15, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, many a frustrated photographer was forced to jockey from one side to another of the balustrade in front of Michelangelo's Pietà to get a clear picture of the statue.

Instead of the clear glass and bare altar, the chapel contained two large lit candelabra, and an offering of flowers before the statue. For the first time in many years, the Pietà revealed itself not only as a watershed work of Renaissance sculpture, but also as masterpiece of devotional art. Visitors and pilgrims alike were invited to think about the meaning of "Pietà" (compassion) as they meditated on the image of the Blessed Virgin holding her Son for a few moments before his entombment.

In Christian eyes, the innovations of Michelangelo become less of an aesthetic pleasure and more of a stimulus to prayer.

The pyramid composition, lauded as a triumph of the High Renaissance, serves not only to give order and monumentality to the work, but binds the Mother and Son together so that she appears as a living shroud for her Son. This composition, employed regularly for images of the Madonna and Child, reminds us how she held the infant Christ on her knee, as now she holds him one last time, limp and lifeless in her arms.

The high polish of Christ's body, touted by guides as the only time Michelangelo gave marble such a bright shine, contrasts sharply with the shadows in the heavy folds of Mary's drapery. When looking at the work, the first impression is that of weighty grief and sorrow, but deeper meditation hints at something else. Mary does not weep in anguish as in earlier Pietàs; rather, she is solemn and resigned -- a reminder of her obedience to God's will. The surface of Christ's body reflects light, so that from the heart of the stone or the tomb, instead of darkness there is illumination.

Finally, to many visitors, the bare altar under the statue seems like a kind of pedestal, there to raise the statue to a better viewing position. But the sculpture only reveals its true meaning when it is above an altar.

Mary's right hand still cradles her Son but the left has released him and opens in a gesture of offering. At the same time, the body of Jesus seems to be precariously balanced in his mother's lap and about to fall onto the altar. When Mass was offered daily before the Pietà, at the moment of consecration, Michelangelo's work dramatically represented the Body of Christ coming to the altar and gave vivid witness to the Real Presence. In this Year of the Eucharist, could there be a more beautiful and eloquent reminder of the suffering, sorrow and sacrifice of Mary and Jesus for our salvation?