Friday, May 27, 2011

Rome, May 2011: On first seeing Michelangelo's 'Pieta' and subsequent reflections

This is the image that had been in my head for over half a century. I don't know when it first registered in my consciousness, possibly in some small statue reproduction in the Sheffield Repository opposite, what is now St. Marie's Cathedral, or maybe it was in a CTS devotional booklet of Stations of the Cross.. I don't think, when I first saw it, that I knew it was by Michelangelo, was one of the most famous sculptures in the world, or that the original work was in St Peter's Basilica.. Sir Kenneth Clark's ground breaking 'Civilisation' series on BBC TV, is bound to have opened my eyes further, and as the years went on I came to know exactly what this amazing piece is, and where it resides. But somehow, until May 3rd this year, it was still something 'out there', something I would never see or know in reality. We tend to be fooled into thinking that because we've seen things on TV or film, once or many times, that we really know them..The image above is  entirely divorced from its acual surroundings. Its presentation encourages study of it as a work of art, and one is astonished at Michelangelo's knowledge of human anatomy and his genius in portraying it in sculpture. On a deeper sprtitual level, the image cannot fail to inspire and aid prayer. So the above picture is what I imagined I would see on the afternoon of May 3rd this year when I visited St Peter's Basilica for the first time.

The above picture more accurately records what I actually saw, although the Pieta itself is clearer in my memory than shown here. To be in the presence of this holy artifact was humbling and soul-stilling beyond words. To say that it is an inspiration to prayer, miserably understates the case. 
What is striking about this image, once you adjust to the lack of deliniation, is the sense of depth it gives - of.the distance between the pillar in the right foreground and the slit of light from a window in the left background. At first sight you could be fooled, by the camera's foreshortening effect into 'seeing' a flat' picture, whereas the photo demonstrates otherwise. It gives an idea of the size and depth not only of the chapel of the Pieta, but of St. Peter's Basilica itself. Moreover the Pieta  is not seen as an isolated museum exhibit, as in the first image. It breathes and beats as integral to the heart of the Universal Church. .

The space between the aforementioned pillar and the marble altar rail is at least as wide as the naves of most of our larger parish churches, and that afternoon it was a thronging mass of people. Similarly the photo shows considerable depth between the rail and the Pieta, then between the Pieta and the large cross on the reredos wall behind it, and then finally the space beyond that wall.

One could hardly move in the press of the crowd. Whilst we waited a chance to go forward and kneel at the marble rail, we leant against the barrier behind us with our backs to the main nave, and MS told me some history of the Pieta and of how when it was first shown, it did not gain the attention it warranted. Michelangelo, on overhearing a conversation which revealed ignorance of his 'authorship',  had autographed it across Mary's sash. He later  repented this as the prideful defacement of his own work.

The figures of the dead Christ and of Mary appear quite natural, even though they are in fact totally out of proportion. (I think MS said that Mary would be about 10 feet tall if she stood up. He said he thought that Michelangelo had wanted to convey the all-embracing love and protectiveness of Mary for her Son. Whatever the reason, only the genius of the sculptor enabled him to 'pull' this visual trick. It would in any case have been difficult to portray elegantly, the body of an adult male in the lap of a woman.. )

It is almost a shock to come to the  Pieta so soon after long queueing to enter the Basilica, even though one knew its location. (See St Peter's ground plan in next post) As we stood before the Pieta MS told me that immediately to its right is the private sacristy where the Pope vests before beginning to process down the nave to celebrate Mass. This chapel or sacristy is not marked on any of the plans I have seen and I certainly hadn't noticed a door into it, although there must be one. I've often wondered where the Pope comes from when he starts procession fully vested, up the nave. As we stood waiting MS told me that he'd once had the privilege of being in a team who had assisted at such a vesting of Pope Benedict. Apparently, after the recessional, and returned to this sacristy, the Pope distributes some of the vestments he has worn, as gifts to the deacons who have assisted him at the altar of celebration. MS was speaking very softly, but thinking that he was some kind of official guide, people gathered closely around us to listen . This embarrassed MS I think. I just stood there feeling rather stupid and very proud. If memory serves correctly, I think one of the group expressed thanks for having been able to learn these facts.

Another surprising thing was that when I finally knelt to pray, I was totally undistracted by the bullet proof panel of glass which protects the chapel (denoted in the photo by a thin black line down the centre of the image.) I simply did not 'see' it, even though I knew it was there, and why. On Pentecost Sunday in 1972 the 'Pieta' was attacked by a crazed geologist, who shouting out 'I am Jesus Christ' did severe damage with his professional hammer. Afterward the statue underwent extensive restoration, which included the replacement of Mary's broken nose, made from  a piece taken from her 'back' The glass panel has been in place since the completion of this work.


I left Rome with no souvenir of the Pieta, except the vivid memories described above.
Two days after I reached home, I found amongst the mail that had arrived in my absence, a plant catalogue from one of my favourite suppliers. They had listed a page of newly stocked roses. My eye was immediately drawn to 'Michelangelo' and of course it just had to be ordered. This would be my souvenir. It arrived yesterday. I don't expect it will bloom this year but it will always cause me to relive the reality of the Pieta, to feel once more the atmosphere of St Peter's and to pray to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother. 

    The Rose 'Michelangelo'. Souvenir of the 'Pieta' in Rome.

Our Lady of the Pieta, pray for us.
Lord have mercy upon us.

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