Michelangelo sculpted the Vatican Pieta, which is known worldwide and is, perhaps, the most viewed work of art in St. Peter’s church in the Vatican. Another of his most famous sculptures is his solitary David. Less well known, however, is his Florentine Pieta, which some believe he intended to be placed at his own grave.
The artistic and political statements of Michelangelo’s David, sculpted when he was in his late twenties, contrast dramatically with the religious meaning and message of a personal spirituality of his Florentine Pieta, done in the years before his death in 1564.
Carved by Michelangelo from Carrara marble between the years 1501 and 1504, the David statue stands at 161.5 inches (410 cm) high, including its base. (Durant 467-468). The sculpture stands inside the Galleria of the Academia Delle Belle Arti in Florence, Italy. The Florentine Pieta, also known as the “Pieta del Duomo” (henceforth “the Florentine Pieta“) also carved from marble is about 92 inches (234 cm) high. Michelangelo worked on this Pieta (which he never finished), as best can be historically approximated, between the years 1547 and 1555 (Hibberd 281-282). Currently, the statue is housed in the Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy.
Both works were damaged — the David during political unrest in 1527 (Copplestone 14); the Florentine Pieta by Michelangelo himself when he thought it was irrevocably injured as he worked on it (Hibberd 283).
Many substantial differences exist between the two works, the most evident being the enormous size of the David which was over two times life size and was referred to as “Il Gigante,” “the giant” (Tansey 746), compared to the slightly larger-than-life size of the Florentine Pieta. The David was a completed work. However, Michelangelo did not finish the Florentine Pieta. In fact, another sculptor, Calcagni, completed the face of Mary Magdalen located on Christ’s right side.
The David is a vigorous youth, standing alone. The Florentine Pieta is a group of persons that includes the thirty-three-year-old Christ, his mother, an elderly Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene. David is the epitome of life and strength. This Pieta portrays sadness, death, and ultimate sorrow. The David was a commissioned work done for the cathedral of Florence under contract (Durant 467-468). On the other hand, Pieta was done almost in secret (Hibberd 282) and it was given away to a servant when Michelangelo thought he had ruined it (Durant 717).
Pieta-New Art Form
For their time, the Pietas of Michelangelo were something new to the Italians. The Germans had invented the pieta form — Mary cradling a dead Christ — and it spread to France in the fourteenth century and eventually to Italy (Hibberd 45). By the time Michelangelo did his Vatican Pieta (1497) only a few Italian paintings of pietas had been done (Hibberd 45).
Previous pietas encountered a dilemma— how to combine the petite figure of Mary with a relatively large male body (Hibberd 46). The artist solved this problem in his Vatican Pieta by making Mary the summit of a pyramid of flowing garments.
The Florentine Pieta
In his Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo created another pyramid with Nicodemus at the apex and the two Mary’s on either side of the dead Christ. Nicodemus also serves as a support for the Virgin Mary and he assists her in holding up the dead Christ whose head touches both Nicodemus and Mary.
The Florentine Pieta represented the embodiment of the religious devotion of the aging Michelangelo. According to Hibberd, the face of Nicodemus is the face of Michelangelo (Hibberd 283; Copplestone 23). Much as the repentant now-devout artist sought to have a close relationship with Christ, Nicodemus in the Pieta is the grieving “bearer and burier” (Hibberd 284) of Christ. Originally, Michelangelo intended for this Pieta to stand over his own grave (Durant 717). However, Michelangelo abandoned this sculpture when it became severely damaged.
In his poetry, Michelangelo spoke of the inadequacy of his art and the love of Christ;
“Painting nor sculpture now can rest
My soul, that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross are spread” (Symonds 501).
In the Florentine Pieta, Nicodemus/Michelangelo supports the dead Christ just taken down from the Cross, a Christ who has died on the Cross for all the sins of all humankind, including, as he was well aware, all the sins of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo Returns To Faith
In the years after he sculpted the David, the artist lived a life of some fame. Early in life, the artist did not live scrupulously or overly religious. However, as he got older a variety of influences made him intensely devout (Gilbert 524). A vast majority of the artist’s works contained religious themes. Michelangelo also received the distinguished appointment as the principal architect of the new St. Peter’s Basilica—the greatest church in all Christendom! He was influenced by a Christian interpretation of neo-Platonic philosophy (Tansey 753; Hibberd 25). Furthermore, for the first time, he met and fell in love with Vitorria Colonna, a deeply religious widow (Durant 718). Because of her “he prayed that he might never again be the man he had been before they met” (Durant 718).
Michelangelo had come to believe in salvation through faith (Hibberd 284). The Nicodemus figure of the Pieta is a “statement of Michelangelo’s internal struggle as a Christian in search of spiritual reconciliation” (Copplestone 23). His concern for his own fate after death (Tansey 754) is evident in the grief of Nicodemus and by his very presence at the cross — despite the Roman authorities and soldiers who were there — when Christ’s body was taken down. Michelangelo’s artwork reflected his interior belief in the salvation made possible by Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection.
David, the youth, as portrayed in the David mirrors the young Michelangelo’s own youthful views about art, about his own stature and abilities, and about certain political regimes of the time. Moreover, the depiction of David’s solitary stance against Goliath signified the artist’s preference to work alone.
The elder Michelangelo, still working alone, produces in the Florentine Pieta not only an image of those at the foot of the cross, but he includes himself as a sad member of this small community. Although the dead Christ is in the central and focal position of the sculpture, Nicodemus is the tallest and topmost figure in the grouping. This emphasis on Nicodemus represented his faith—not as a confident youth, but as a penitent man who sought redemption!
Gilbert, Creighton. “Michelangelo.” Atlantic Brief Lives. Ed. Louis Kronenberger. Boston: Little Brown, 1971. 523-525.
Architecture. London: Phaidon 1996.
Markham, Anne. “Donatello.” Atlantic Brief Lives. Ed. Louis Kronenberger. Boston: Little Brown, 1971. 229-231.
Payne, Anne. Essential History of Art. Bath: Parragon, 2002.
Tansey, Richard G. and Fresd S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996.