Pietà for Vittoria Colonna by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Pietà for Vittoria Colonna, c.1538–44, Black chalk on paper, 28.9 cm x 18.9 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, inv. 1.2.o.16, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, USA / Bridgeman Images

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‘Blessed Are You Who Believed!’

Commentary by

This carefully finished drawing of the Pietà was made by an ageing Michelangelo in 1538 as a gift for Vittoria Colonna. A deeply religious spirit, this widow of an imperial general was the only woman in the artist’s exclusive circle of intimate friends. She was more than a friend to him: she was a spiritual sister on his journey upward, much like Beatrice was to Dante in The Divine Comedy. This background is not irrelevant to the drawing itself, for it is the celebration of a spiritual bond between a man, Jesus, and a woman, his mother.

The Pietà as an artistic subject spotlights the Virgin, usually alone, at the moment when she receives the lifeless body of her son, just taken down from the cross.

Here, the body of Christ is exposed in frontal view, his arms slung over his mother’s thighs and further supported by two angels. Inscribed on the vertical beam of the cross, words rise above Mary as if recording her thoughts. They are a quotation, now cropped, from Canto 29 of Dante’s Divine Comedy: Non vi si pensa quanto sangue costa (‘there they don’t think of how much blood it costs’).

What is immediately striking in this Pietà is the counterpoint between Mary’s body and her son’s: his head is bowed down, hers is raised up; his forearms are hanging, lifeless, hers are prayerfully raised to heaven; his hands are folded in, hers are wide open to give and receive. If Jesus’s body language speaks of his ongoing descent on Holy Saturday, Mary’s hopeful and ecstatic attitude seems borrowed from an Assumption.

This drawing dramatically emphasizes the contrast, and correlation, between Jesus’s death and Mary’s faith. She is represented not just as the sorrowful mother, but as the one the Early Church Fathers called the ‘New Eve’, the ‘helper fit for him’ (Genesis 2:18) who offered to his Passion the response of the ‘one faith’ and the ‘forbearance of love’.

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