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A symbol for our world

· A fresh look at Michelangelo’s Pietà ·

Michelangelo’s Pietà has not revealed all its mysteries. Far from it. Masterpieces are full of them and one can question them endlessly. It is their very nature. One day I noticed a detail that changed my view of the work. It is there, among the details, that the essential always survives. At the moment I am developing this discovery in a book, and I’ll give you a taste of it here.

It is 1499, the eve of a new century: a pivotal, tense period, conducive to urgency and flashes of brilliance. In less than a year a young 24-year-old man would sculpt an immortal masterpiece in a single block of white Carrara marble. This should suffice — shouldn’t it? — to convince us of the exceptional character of such an accomplishment, manifestly inspired in the hands of the sculptor, abandoned to his creative ecstasy. Michelangelo sculpted in this kind of necessary inebriation. He threw himself into it, and all he wanted from the block, he said, was to liberate the marvel he saw.

A pietà. The subject is well known. It has been portrayed time and again: the Virgin Mary, holding in her arms the dead Christ deposed from the Cross. We should note that the sculpture is composed within the shape of a triangle, a symbol of elevation, perfection and stability — isn’t a three-legged stool always steady?

The first thing to surprise us is Mary’s age. She is young, far too young, even younger than Christ. Her face is of an impenetrable perfection; her features are magnified, angelic. No emotion clouds this young face, smooth and neutral, enhanced by the contrast with the abundant folds of her clothes. Here this is nothing other than the ideal beauty of a young woman, the archetype of femininity. It is the acceptance, necessarily silent, which predominates; an impression accentuated by the gesture of the open left hand which seems to be saying: “that’s how it is”.

Christ is abandoned. He looks older than Mary, smaller than the mother, than the woman, the bride, in whose arms he has slid and is slipping away, for this young and beautiful body shows no sign of rigidity; on the contrary. In the shape of an “S” it is supple, sensuous and languid. Fingers caress the fabric, a foot rests against a stone; the veins in the arm and neck pulse with blood with a slow and magical rhythm.

In 1964 the Pietà went to New York on its first and last exile. Robert Hupka, a photographer, followed it on its journey. In a contrasted setting — against a black background —, very different from that of St Peter’s, from impossible angles he would take more than 2,000 shots of the work, hidden from sight for centuries. It is on the basis of these exceptional photos that I ask you to change the way you look at it, because we no longer see only the Virgin and the dead Christ but also a young woman and a young man voluntarily offered to her arms. In brief, a couple. And they are both alive. However, which image could prove my theory?

In New York, Robert Hupka made a hole in the ceiling in order to capture Christ’s face, ever hidden from our view and which, before him, the artist alone had contemplated. And it was dazzling! For the countenance is alive and extraordinarily serene: a smiling, confident, blessed beatitude. Never had a human face been born from the divine mystery of Art with such consoling strength.

Therefore, as well as making a pietà, we realize what Michelangelo slipped into this sublime parable: the consenting capitulation of the male in the female principle. A proper exaltation of the feminine values, long trampled upon though close to the very values of the Gospels.

It is a magnificent symbol for our world, governed by a triumphant maleness that puts pride first, ceaselessly launching and relaunching its profits, its rivalry, its armies; a sublime message for our humanity that invites us to privilege, and to entrust ourselves to the values of welcoming, of openness and of acceptance, as are represented here by the female principle. The Pietà, in this perspective, could find a place on any altar of the world. In the silence of acceptance, frenzy is suspended.

But why, you will ask me, has this allegory never been analysed? Because important, sacred revelations can never be made all at once. They are always veiled; in poetry, in fables, in parables and in marble. They wait there, sometimes a long time, for a wayfarer (or a passer-by) or an awakener, to come and gather them because without distance, without a veil, the essential sounds trivial.

Luc Templier




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 24, 2020