Today In Church History: August 26

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1498 Michelangelo is commissioned to sculpt the Pietà

Michelangelo was only 23 when Cardinal Jean Bilhères, the ambassador of the French king to the papacy, chose him to sculpt a Pietà for a chapel in the Vatican. A Pietà is a carved representation of the crucified Christ being held by his mother, an artistic theme that was familiar in northern Europe (the illustration below is from Germany, about 1420) but one that had not yet become widespread in Italy. Michelangelo’s version is remarkable for its size, larger than was customary, and for the youthfulness of the Virgin. Michelanglo’s reply to those who queried his decision was: “Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?”

The statue’s original site, the Chapel of St Petronilla, was demolished in the early sixteenth century and it is now in St Peter’s Basilica. Sadly it is behind a bullet-proof shield because of the damage it suffered in an attack by a messianic loon who took a hammer to the sculpture  in 1972.

This is the only work of Michelangelo’s which the artist signed, carving MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Made by Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence) on the sash across the Virgin.

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