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’.
4 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.