Understanding Michelangelo's Portrayal of Grief felt by Mary, Jesus’ Mother, through La Pieta

Debbie Centeno
“The Pieta means pity or compassion, and represents Mary sorrowfully contemplating the dead body of her son which she holds on her lap.” ~ The Khan Academy

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Michelangelo's La Pieta in the Vatican City- image by the author

When traveling, I enjoy experiencing other country’s cultures — especially Italy. There is always something that amazes me every time we visit. As we roam through the uneven cobblestone streets of Rome and sightsee its old architectural buildings it is impressive. The Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, Vatican City, Basilicas, and so much more, but the one that impressed me the most was Michelangelo’s La Pieta.

La Pieta is a marble structure homed at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It is an enormous sculpture of Mary holding the body of her son, Jesus, in her arms after the crucifixion. According to the Khan Academy, “The Pieta means pity or compassion, and represents Mary sorrowfully contemplating the dead body of her son which she holds on her lap.” La Pieta, sculpted around 1498, is the only one Michelangelo has ever signed.

Why did La Pieta impress me so much? The sculpture depicts a grieving mother, and I can relate to that. It was a personal moment for me. I stared in awe thinking about the pain that Mary endured for the loss of her son. As a grieving mother, I felt the anguish she felt. It really hit home. I recall spending a long time just staring at the sculpture. As I looked at Mary’s face, I could not only see the pain but feel it in my heart. Even though the cold marble structure was still, I could see the tears rolling down her cheeks, her heart shredding to pieces as she held her son’s limp, cold, and unresponsive body. I could hear her squalling cry and it shocked me. My tears flowed just like Mary’s and my heart ached.

It took me back to the most painful time in my life. That one time when my life changed forever. I realized how people looked at La Pieta and saw it as just another sculpture. Not everyone who looks at it senses what I felt, but I am sure a grieving mother would. While looking at this sculpture and going through the emotions, it made me view it differently. What I once thought was just another sculpture is now an image that, even though still, has the magic energy to stir emotions. That a grieving mother’s pain is as old as history, and I am not alone in my grieving journey. Because, as grieving mothers, we could fathom no one else feeling the way we feel. But once you see La Pieta, it all changes.

My respects to Michelangelo for sculpting such an emotional structure. The inspiration for La Pieta came from Michelangelo’s deep faith. But how did he know to portray the feeling of a mother’s grief? It is beyond my comprehension. To me, the grief of a mother differs from that of a father. Did he have any children? I do not know and have not researched it. I recall reading Michelangelo was homosexual, or so they thought he was. That does not mean he was not a father. Whether he was a father or homosexual, it does not matter. For me, what does count is that he created this real-life emotional sculpture, and I am glad he did. I portray it as real-life because it tugs at a grieving mother’s heartstrings. Hence, it opens an emotion too real for the grieving mother. Was it divine intervention that evoked this feeling in Michelangelo? Who knows? My belief is that the spirit never dies, therefore, Jesus and Mary’s spirit certainly surrounded Michelangelo while he chiseled away in creating this sculpture.

That, my friends, is why La Pieta impressed me the most. Have you been to Rome, Italy? What was your most impressive structure?

Originally published at Debbies Reflection on June 9, 2019.

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My writing journey began as a way to cope with grief. I realized I enjoyed writing and began a blog, Debbie’s Reflection (https://debbiesreflection.com). I also enjoy traveling. Therefore, as a traveler, I began another blog, Traveler Wows (https://travelerwows.com), in which I share tips on places, landmarks, and reviews on airlines, hotels, and restaurants. Thank you for joining me on my writing journey.

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