The most famous sculpture in the roman Basilica of Saint Peter is the most famous one by Michelangelo, who made it in 1499 when he was just 24 years old.
It was made for the french ambassador Cardinal Jean de Bilheres de Lagraulas who was the French ambassador in Rome and commissioned the sculpture as his own funerary monument.
Michelangelo’s PIETÀ is the only one inscribed with his name, which is carved on the ribbon falling from the Vergin’s left shoulder.
A famous italian historian, who lived in the 1500’s, recounts that Michelangelo, overhearing some Lombards praise his “Pietà” as the work of a sculptor from their native Milan, got angry, left the Church and came with his chisel at dead of night to leave his name upon it.
He carved “MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this).
Michelangelo’s interpretation of the “Pietà” was far different from those previously created by other artists, as he sculpted a young and beautiful Mary rather than an older woman around 50 years of age.
You may understand the reason why the artist decided to represent the Madonna younger than her Son, if you read the opening verse of the last Canto of the “Paradiso” by Dante Alighieri, where Saint Bernard, during his prayer, pronounces the words: “Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio…” (“Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son”). Infact, Mary was the mother of Jesus from a human point of view but, as a Christian, she was the daughter of Jesus the Son of God and God himself.
In 1964, the Pietà was lent by the Vatican to the New York World’s Fair held in 1964-65, to be installed in the Vatican pavilion. Francis Cardinal Spellman, who had requested the statue from Pope John XXIII, appointed Edward M. Kinney, Director of Purchasing and Shipping of Catholic Relief Services, to head up the Vatican Transport Teams. The statue was shipped in a wooden crate 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) thick with an 8-inch (20 cm) base, secured to the deck of the liner “Cristoforo Colombo”; in case of an accident, the crate contained cushioning so thick that it would float in water, and had an emergency location beacon as well as a marker buoy attached.
At the fair, people stood in line for hours to catch a glimpse from a conveyor belt, moving past the sculpture.
It was returned to the Vatican afterwards.
In 1972, a crash Hungarian geologist attacked the sculture with a hammer and chopped off the Virgin’s nose, so that’s why the Pietà has been housed behind a bullet-proof glass!
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