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The Pieta of Michelangelo

( Originally Published 1907 )



The walls of the chapel in which we stand are faced with slabs of colored marble, taken from the earlier church which stood on this spot. The usual altar is here with its crucifix and candelabra of bronze, the Pietà being fixed in majesty on its pedestal over the altar. No one need tell you the story or explain its beauties. Mary is seated at the foot of the cross, and holds in her lap the dead body of her Son. She gave Him to the world, and thus the world gives Him back to her, wounded, dead, disgraced. She holds Him in her arms as when He was a child, and two thoughts seem to be expressed in her attitude: "It was not thus I held Him in Galilee long ago : this is the cruelest crime ever done by man." The heart of the mother is not so overcome by grief as to lose the significance of the terrible tragedy. Her right hand supports the inert body, her left shows it to all mankind. She accepts the sorrow, but appeals to men against the shame and death inflicted upon the Lamb of God. You may study that group for hours and not exhaust the wonder that human hand could make the dull, cold marble thus portray the most significant scene in history. Critics have said much about it, and most of them have missed its variety of meanings. It is not only the mother who bemoans the murdered son; nor only the mother who appeals for justice against the murderers. Mark the majesty of the seated figure. It is not a crushed and maddened woman, marred by the distraction of a tremendous grief. This is also Mary the prophetess, who cried out to Elizabeth in her song of praise: "The Lord hath looked down upon the lowliness of His handmaid; behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me Blessed." In the thought of Michelangelo the woman who could thus foresee her own greatness in the infancy of her wonderful Child could also foresee the consequences of the tragedy of the Cross. Therefore he portrayed a mother who sat in judgment upon the murderers of her Son, even in the moment of her sorrow. She appeals to His faithful followers in all the ages against His sentence and execution. The grief-stricken face is almost contradicted by the majestic attitude, in which there is no giving way to uncontrollable sorrow. This is the full thought of the sculptor. Having learned that thought and studied the completeness of its expression, pass to the closer examination of the details; the grace of the draperies, the abandonment of the dead body, so clear in the posture of the right arm. It is one of the finest pieces of sculpture in Rome, and by it one may judge the work of artists everywhere.

Nearly opposite this chapel of the Pietà, on the south side of the church, is the place where one begins the ascent to the dome. From the lofty lantern over the dome we are to look off in various directions—first over the great Piazza with the curving colonnades, obelisk and fountains, past the house-roof where we got our first view of St. Peter's, and far off to the eastward over the river Tiber and the great city of Rome.

Turn once more to Map. I. From the centre of the circular space where the altar stands, three: pairs of long red lines are found extending in different directions to the limits of the map, marking out the respective fields of our seventh, eighth and ninth outlooks. (It is to be understood that those three pairs of lines start from nearly the same point, above the altar but almost four hundred feet higher up in the air.) Our seventh position is to be taken next; the lines which bound its range will be found marked 7, ending—one in the lower mar-gin of the map and one in the right margin. We shall evidently be looking eastward. As a matter of fact we shall see many miles farther in that direction than the map can indicate.



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