The Vatican La Pieta: Michelangelo’s Divine Vision!

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St. Peter’s Basilica’s most iconic sculpture is the La Pieta, also known as Madonna della Pieta, attracting over 10 million visitors annually!

Michelangelo’s Pieta, carved from a single block of Carrara marble, inspired artists worldwide for its realistic carving and artistic beauty.

Visitors planning to admire the famous La Pieta sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica must know why it is so unique despite being centuries old.

In this article, we’ll discover the magnificent techniques used to construct the Pieta, its biblical story, and the best times to visit this masterpiece! 

The Description of the Michelangelo La Pieta

The La Pieta is a human-sized masterpiece, with 174 x 195 cm dimensions, carved from a single block of marble.

The statue is a life-like depiction of the sorrowful scene of Mother Mary holding the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. 

She has a young-looking face, and you can see the sorrow and emotion she feels on her face after her son’s death.  

Mother Mary wears a plain cloak, which has been carved perfectly by Michelangelo, making it appear like it is moving with the breeze.

The piece is a favorite of artists and sculptors because of the cloak; you can see every crease and fold as clearly as cloth would show! 

Jesus sleeps in his mother’s lap like a small child, with a calm expression.

His body was carved to look smaller than his mother’s, showing that Mother Mary is still thinking about his childhood. 

If you look closely, you will realize that even the body of Jesus looks like real flesh, as Michelangelo replicates all the human muscles! 

You can also see small marks on the palms and side of Jesus to mark his wounds and indicate it depicts a scene after his crucifixion. 

Something that visitors usually miss in the statue is the left arm of Mother Mary, which is an outstretched open palm to all visitors.

It invites them to see the body of Jesus and believe that it is not only sad but also a path towards a new life. 

The statue is so famous among all visitors because of its deep emotional impact, bringing most pilgrims to tears.

The Pieta now stands behind a bulletproof glass case, protecting it from harm. 

Scroll further down to see how much it has been damaged over the years but still shines as the gem masterpiece of the Basilica! 

What does La Pieta mean?

La Pieta is a French name that translates to pity or compassion in English.

Michelangelo named the statue this because it makes all pilgrims and visitors feel compassionate towards the scene before them.

It is a pitiful Biblical story, as Mother Mary has lost her only son. 

The Biblical Story 

The Pieta is a depiction of the Sixth Sorrow Mother Mary went through in the Bible when she finally got to hold the crucified body of her son.

This is the Biblical scene of Jesus being laid in his mother’s arms after he is declared to be dead on the cross.

Since they did not break his legs during crucifixion, you will see the complete body of Jesus lying in his mother’s lap. 

Where is the sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica?

The sculpture stands in the first chapel on the right side of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

If you want to visit the Basilica before other attractions like the Vatican Museum, we recommend entering from the Via della Concillaziona entrance. 

This will bring you close to St. Peter’s Square in front of St Peter’s Basilica!

You can explore this sculpture easily after visiting the Vatican Museum, which is only a 13-minute walk away.

Check out our article on How to get to St. Peter’s Basilica to find quick routes and transportation to get you to the church!

Are Tickets Needed to Visit the Sculpture?

You do not need tickets to see the La Pieta statue since entry to St. Peter’s Basilica is free!

Visitors only need a ticket to climb to the dome’s top and explore the Vatican Grottoes under the Basilica.

If you’re a first-time visitor, we recommend taking a St. Peter’s Basilica Guided Tour for €45 to discover the secrets behind this masterpiece!

You can also combine your visit with the Vatican Musuem and Sistine Chapel tour experience and enter the Basilica from the less crowded Chapel shortcut!

Best Time to see the La Pieta Vatican

You can see the sculpture for free from 7 am to 7 pm, which is St. Peter’s Basilica’s opening hours.

We recommend arriving at the Basilica at 6.45 am so you can stand in a queue to see the sculpture first!

You can also expect fewer crowds from 7 am to 9 am at the Basilica, which is the best visiting time. 

Weekdays are the best days to see the sculpture. 

Avoid visiting the statue on Sunday, as the Basilica is usually not open to the public early in the morning because of holy mass.

Visitors might be unable to access the Basilica on Wednesdays if the Pope wants to use the area before the Papal Audience services begin. 

Sculptural Techniques used to craft the statue

Michelangelo’s most obvious technique is the use of the Renaissance’s famous geometric composition technique!

This technique makes the statue imitate a pyramid-like shape, where the sculpture gets wider at the base.

You will notice that Mary’s head is the smallest point in the statue, which keeps getting wider at her torso area as you move downward. 

To make the statue appear real, Michelangelo added over a hundred folds and creases to Mother Mary’s cloak!

Most people also find it hard to believe, but the entire masterpiece was made from a single block of Carrara marble from Tuscany. 

Michelangelo worked hard to carve every single vein and muscle movement in Jesus’s body.

It is done so well that most artists passing by try to draw the same pieta on their notepads to take back home!

If you are a fan of Michelangelo’s work, we highly recommend entering the Basilica to see the beautiful Dome he designed. 

Madonna della Pieta’s History

The Madonna della Pieta was Michelangelo’s favorite work in the Vatican, commissioned for Cardinal Jean di Biheres in the 1500s.

Michelangelo created it as a headstone for the Cardinal’s funeral chapel’s altarpiece, but it became famous instead because of its artistic beauty!

The Pieta arrived in the Vatican in the 18th century and stood in the Chapel of Saint Petronella.

Donato Bramante destroyed this chapel to create a new layout for the Basilica.

It was not an uncommon depiction, as it was a favorite carving piece among Renaissance artists.

What made it different from the other pieces was that it was a calm figure, while the others had grief-filled expressions on Mother Mary’s face.

The Madonna della Pieta is the only piece Michelangelo signed in his entire lifetime, and you can still see his signature on Mary’s sash!

Michelangelo decided to sign the piece because he had heard rumors that Cristoforo Solari was the original sculptor of the piece. 

The Church’s Criticisms Against the Pieta & Other Theories

Like the criticisms of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Church also had many problems with his La Pieta statue.

The clergy found the young appearance of Mother Mary to be very offensive and claimed that she looked like she was the same age as her son.

Michelangelo fought against these comments by saying that since she was a virgin and the mother of God, she aged differently.

It also became widespread news that the Pieta was based on Dante’s famous Divine Comedy.

According to the Divine Comedy, it is believed that Jesus was God, so Mother Mary would be his mother and daughter.

Michelangelo likely wanted to prove this point, so he made her appear youthful in the sculpture.

Even though the Church was angry because of these theories, the Pieta continued to attract millions of pilgrims, and it is now an official part of the Vatican!  

Exciting facts about Madonna della Pieta Michelangelo!

Here are some less-known facts about the Madonna della Pieta so you can show off your knowledge of art on your visit!

  • Besides on Mary’s sash, you can also see a faint M signed on Mary’s palm by Michelangelo!
  • The statue was to be displayed in New York in 1964. It was packed so perfectly that even if the ship sunk with all the people, the statue would float up to the surface! A tracker was also attached to the Pieta if it needed to be rescued. 
  • Michelangelo crafted three Pieta statues!

Want to know more about the other three Pietas? Scroll ahead to find out more! 

Vatican restorations on the Pieta

Even though you don’t see any scratches or other damage to the Pieta today, it has undergone many restoration projects. 

Giuseppe Lirioni did the first restoration on the Pieta in 1736 when he repaired the four fingers of Mother Mary. 

The next restoration was huge, taking almost ten months to complete!

The damage was done by a drunk man named Laszlo Toth, who smashed the statue to pieces by hitting it twelve times in 1972.

The restorers did a great job on its repair, using invisible glue and marble powder to attach the parts back.

The hardest part to fix was Mary’s eyelid, which took at least twenty tries to get right!

After so much work, the Basilica installed a three-layer bulletproof glass case around the statue to avoid any more damage to the statue. 

The statue you see today is the exact statue Michelangelo carved in 1500!  

Other Pieta Statues around the World 

Michelangelo crafted three Pieta sculptures in his lifetime, which are still on display in different parts of Italy!

The first one is the St. Peter’s Basilica Pieta, which this article is based on.

The second sculpture is the Pieta Bandnini, which looks completely different and stands in Florence’s Opera Del Duomo!

In the sculpture are Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, who are holding up the body of Jesus as Nicodemus, his disciple, brings it down from the cross.

It is believed that Michelangelo destroyed this sculpture, and Tiberio Calcagni restored the complete one you see today. 

Michelangelo spent the last few days of his life crafting the Pieta Rondanini sculpture, now in Milan’s Museum of Ancient Art of Castello Sforzesco.

The Pieta Rodnini depicts the scene of Mother Mary supporting Jesus’ body.

FAQs on La Pieta

1. Who sculpted La Pieta?

2. What is the meaning of La Pieta?

3. What happened to La Pieta?

4. How many La Pieta are there?

5. Why is the Pieta so special?

6. How long did it take for Michelangelo to finish the Pieta?

7. How old was Michelangelo when he sculpted the Pieta?

8. Who paid Michelangelo to make the Pieta?

9. Why is Mary not touching Jesus in the Pieta?

10. How much was Michelangelo paid for the Pieta?

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