My colleagues and I have been each asked to choose an object that made us “#hookedonarthistory for the University of Edinburgh’s History of Art department’s social media account. It’s a lovely, fun thing with some brilliant answers from my colleagues, so I hesitated before choosing Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà. There are two reasons. Firstly, it is an ineffably sad sculpture, and I didn’t want to bring down the mood. Secondly, about a decade or so ago, an art historical grandee upbraided me for my hackneyed and banal affection for this work, and unfortunately at that time I lacked the confidence to tell him to bog off.
So here’s some advice for you for free, which took me several years and a PhD to realise: if someone tells you that your feelings about an art work (or, frankly, anything else) are somehow not good enough, steer well clear of that person.
Anyhow, maybe the grandee guy was right, maybe sadness is banal – we all get to feel it at some point, after all. As banal, then, as love, as well as being love’s inevitable counterpoint.
I first saw this sculpture when I was 19. I’d been inter-railing through Italy with my then boyfriend. He was about to go to art college, and I was recovering from the scarring transition between a Leeds comprehensive school and an Oxford college. We’d arrived in Rome from Florence at lunchtime. It was July and the air was heavy with heat. I have the unbronzable skin of a redhead and zigzagged between patches of shade.
So perhaps the first thing I remember about St Peter’s is the relief that most north European tourists must feel when entering the dark haven of a church in the middle of an Italian summer. To be honest, it’s hard to take anything in at first visit beyond the size. St Peter’s is dumbstrikingly enormous. I had my Rough Guide with me, so knew to look for a sculpture by Michelangelo to the right of the entrance. It was easy to find, in fact, with its throng of tourists, and reflections of illicit camera flashes bouncing off bulletproof glass.
I suppose I was ripe for a moment like this, only-just adult, not yet knowing what I didn’t know, impressionable. But it was the first time I really understood that art could have a transformative power, and that the visual can guide us when we encounter parts of our lives where words no longer help.
The dead Christ lies on his mother’s lap. Mary looks young, younger than her son. It’s hard to understand how all this can possibly be chiselled from stone – the fluid mass of drapery, the veins of Christ’s arms, his ribs, the folds of her veil, the pressure of the virgin’s fingers on the winding cloth as she grasps her dead son to her. And her empty left hand, turning upwards, reaching out to us in a gesture that punctuates the entire sculpture.
It’s this gesture that in more recent years I have returned to, to think about and articulate the strange open-ended, unexpected nature of grief: the kind of feelings that creep on you unawares, as you find yourself in tears in a shop because you’ve stumbled across the ideal present that you’ll never have the chance to give; the messy anger, numbness and shame that insistently remind you of the words you never said, or of the words you wished you had never said, of conversations that can never be resolved; the ceaseless weight of it, the blank guilt of not feeling sad, then remembering.
Mourning also brings the kindness of others, who are there at funerals, who send cards, who say kind words – sometimes people you barely know, whose presence helps so much, makes you feel less alone. This is what art can do too, make us realise that we are not alone and that what we feel, however unmanageable, has been managed and borne by countless others.
Art and Grief in the Renaissance
Michelangelo was about 24 years old when he made the Pietà for the chapel of a French cardinal in the old (slightly less vast) St Peter’s. By then, like most of his contemporaries, he’d experienced a huge amount of loss. The French invasion of 1494 broke through Italy’s decades-long peace and fractured Michelangelo’s world irrevocably. Traditional historical accounts talk about the tactics of military leaders in the Italian wars, of doges, kings, dukes and popes, but fail to mention the irreplaceable human cost of lives lost, cities sacked, women raped, civilians murdered in their thousands. Even without the invasion, life was much more uncertain then.
“Nothing is as certain as death, and nothing is as uncertain as the hour of death” was a popular preamble to wills in Florence from around the 1490s. There are many renaissance accounts of losing people that can still be difficult to read. Giovanni Tornabuoni wrote to his friend, Lorenzo de’ Medici, of the death of his young wife, Francesca Pitti, in 1477:
I am so oppressed by grief and pain for the most bitter and unforeseen accident of my most sweet wife that I myself do not know where I am. As you will have heard yesterday, as pleased God, at the 22nd hour she passed from this life in childbirth, and the infant, having cut her open, we extracted from the body dead, which to me was a double grief still.
Tornabuoni commissioned a tomb to permanently memorialise his wife. This extraordinary marble frieze, now in the Bargello Museum in Florence, is the only part of the tomb that remains. The frize is a harrowing record of one person’s grief. You can see Francesca’s limp body on the bed at the right hand side, surrounded by female attendants who start to mourn, tearing their hair or heads buried in their hands, as they realise what has happened. On the left side of the frieze, a midwife brings the dead infant to his as yet unknowing father, Giovanni.
Women dying in childbirth, stillbirths and infant mortality were all horribly high during the Renaissance – it’s been estimated that just over 17% of children died before the age of 2. This was a population scarred by loss, though we only have a fragmented understanding of how this made grieving parents feel. Richard Trexler discusses the Florentine merchant Giovanni Morelli’s ritual that he used to try and relieve himself of the grief of losing his 9-year old son, Alberto, in 1408. He prayed whilst embracing Alberto’s crucifix, kissing the images of the saints in the same places as his son had.
I never would have thought that God’s dividing my son from me … would have been, and is, to me such a grave knife … I cannot, nor can his mother, forget. Instead we continually have his image before our eyes, remember his ways, his conditions, words and acts, day and night, at lunch and dinner, inside and out, sleeping and awake.
No wonder the Pietà was an often re-visited subject in these years, where death could be sudden, and at close quarters. There are many moving Pietàs beyond Michelangelo’s. Enguerrand Quarton’s striking, abstracted image of the 1450s, for example, is art-historian-famous, but I suspect less well known by non specialists.
Or there’s Titian’s astonishing, freely painted, scumbled and dark verson that he made for his own tomb, left incomplete at his death in his 80s in 1576.
To visually crystallise the loss of her son, Käthe Kollwitz adapted renaissance examples in the creation of her bronze sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son. It has been in the Neue Wache in central Berlin since 1993. Illuminated by a skylight in the empty stone room, it powerfully shows how the horrors of maternal loss act as a synecdoche for all grief, as a memorial “to the victims of war and tyranny”.
Michelangelo’s patron died, in fact, just as the sculpture was put into place in his chapel, but it wasn’t made only for him. This visual poem of mourning has spoken to viewers for five hundred years and more. It spoke to me at 19, not knowing anything about Michelangelo, or the Renaissance, barely knowing what loss was, but it pointed me in a direction that was to profoundly influence my life. And I’ve returned to it when I’ve needed to.
We are living at a moment in time when hundreds of thousands of people have recently lost someone they love. We plot the numbers of the dead on graphs, allowing us to somehow understand what is happening without having to constantly face the raw pain that these numbers represent. We carry on as well as we can, aware that our lives now are resting on a vast undertow of loss, too large to face or articulate.
If you are grieving, I’m so sorry. My thoughts are with you. I know my words are inadequate. Art can sometimes help where words fail.
As with everything by Michelangelo, there has been a lot written on the St Peter’s Pietà. For a recent article that discusses it in the context of mourning and the liturgy of death, see Emily A. Finichel, “Michelangelo’s Pieta as a Tomb Monument: Patronage, Liturgy and Mourning,” Renaissance Quarterly 70 (2017).
For more on Tornabuoni family patronage, including the extraordinary tomb for Francesca, see:
Maria de Prano, Art Patronage, Family and Gender in Renaissance Florence: The Tornabuoni. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Phillip Sohm wrote The Artist Grows Old, a lovely book on artists and aging, if you want to find more about Titian in his old age (and Michelangelo, for that matter).