Everything You Must Know About All Michelangelo’s Pietàs

Zuzanna Stańska 14 September 2021 min Read

I guess everyone knows Michelangelo’s Pietà from St. Peter Basilica in the Vatican. But did you know, it is not the only sculpture of this subject created by the artist? Here we present all Pietàs created by the great Renaissance master – and some of them can be really surprising!

1. St. Peter’s Pietà

Michelangelo, Pietá, 1498-1499, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Photo by Stanislav Traykov via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).
Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498-1499, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo by Stanislav Traykov via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).

The Vatican Pietà, obviously the most famous of all Michelangelo‘s Pietàs, is the only work that the artist signed himself. The signature can be found across Virgin Mary’s chest but Michelangelo later regretted the vanity of this act and resolved never to sign another piece of his work. Anyway, the statue was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères. It was made for the cardinal’s funeral monument but was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right as one enters the basilica, in the 18th century. What may be weird for us now, Madonna is represented as being way too young for the mother of a 33-year-old son, which is not uncommon in depictions of her at the time of the Passion of Christ. Various explanations have been suggested for this. One is that her youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity.

I forgot to mention, Michelangelo was 24 when he created this sculpture. Nice, isn’t it?

2. Pietà Palestrini

Michelangelo or Niccolò Menghini, Palestrina Pietà, 1555, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, Italy.
Michelangelo or Niccolò Menghini, Palestrina Pietà, 1555, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy. Kunstkopie.

This Pietà was attributed to Michelangelo for the first time in 1756 without any proven evidence. Now it is mostly considered to have been completed by Niccolò Menghini, but some art historians still claim it was created by the artist himself.

3. Bandini Pietà

Michelangelo, Bandini Pietà, c. 1547-1553, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy.
Michelangelo, Bandini Pietà, c. 1547-1553, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).

In this Pietà we have four figures: the dead body of Jesus Christ, just taken down from the Cross, Nicodemus (or possibly Joseph of Arimathea), Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary. According to famous art historian Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo made this sculpture to decorate his tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. But it now can be found in Florence. How so?

Well, Vasari also noted that Michelangelo began to work on the sculpture around the age of 72. Without commission, Michelangelo worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. After 8 years of working on the piece, Michelangelo would go on and attempt to destroy the work in a fit of frustration. This marked the end of Michelangelo’s work on the piece and from there the piece found itself in the hands of Francesco Bandini, who hired an apprentice sculptor, by the name of Tiberius Calcagni, to restore the work to its current condition. Since its inception, the piece has been plagued by ambiguities and never-ending interpretations, with no straightforward answers available.

Interesting fact: the face of Nicodemus under the hood is considered to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself.

4. Rondanini Pietà

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pietà, 1564, Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Italy.
Michelangelo, Rondanini Pietà, 1564, Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Italy. Google Arts & Culture.

Michelangelo worked on Rondanini Pietà from the 1550s until the last days of his life, in 1564. The work was found in his home in Rome but all traces of it were lost for many years until it reappeared in the home of the Marquis Giuseppe Rondinini (this is the correct spelling of the name), a distinguished Roman collector.  Michelangelo hacked at the marble block until only the dismembered right arm of Christ survived from the sculpture as originally conceived. The spectral Virgin and Christ are different from the idealized figures that exemplified the sculptor’s earlier style and have been said to bear more of a resemblance to the attenuated figures of Gothic sculpture than those of the Renaissance. It has also been suggested that the sculpture should not be considered unfinished, but a work in a continuous process of being made visible by the viewer as he or she moves around to see it from multiple angles.

When viewing the sculpture from certain rear angles, it looks as if Jesus is holding Mary up with his back, instead of Mary cradling Jesus. It is said that Michelangelo carefully crafted it this way to represent how Jesus’s spirit might actually have been comforting Mary in her loss.