Michelangelo’s Pieta: Everything You Need to Know

The Pieta may be the greatest statue in the world and it is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It can be found directly on the right as you enter into the Basilica.

Who is the artist that made the Pieta statue?

It was sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti who was born in Florence in 1475 and would later become most known for completing the frescos in the Sistine Chapel

What does Pieta mean?

The Pietà, meaning “pity” or “compassion”, is a marble sculpture of Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, after he was crucified on the cross. It is interesting when you see the piece as it becomes obvious that Mary has a young girl’s face for a woman who is the mother of a 33-year-old man. Late in Michelangelo’s life, he explained to a biographer “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?”. Meaning the fact that she was a virgin kept her young and beautiful. 

Why did Michelangelo sculpt the Pieta?

The Pieta was commissioned by a French cardinal named Jean De Biltieres. Michelangelo began work when he was only 23 years old. Michelangelo was famously a very frugal man and could easily be mistaken for a beggar but he was paid well for the statue for an artist so young and unknown, 450 ducats which in today’s money would be close to 70,000 USD today. 

The marble was queried from Carrara which is northwest of Italy. Michelangelo was responsible for quarrying the marble himself which was a very dangerous task, building his own pully system, taking the block down with a wooden sled and organizing the block of marble to be shipped to Rome.

How long did it take Michelangelo to carve the Pieta?

For such a detailed work it is incredible to think that Michelangelo created the Pieta in just over a year. He was so young at the age of 25 and so unheard of at the time he was dismayed when he overheard that the Pieta must have been sculpted by an artist called Cristoforo Solari, a much more established artist. He was so upset by this that he snuck into the church of the French cardinal, Chapel of Santa Petronilla and signed it “Michala(n)gelus Bonarotus Florentin(us) Facieba(t)” meaning “Michelangelo Buonarotti made this.” He engraved this signature right across the body of Mary, and it can still be seen to this day.

It is the only work Michelangelo ever signed. 

How To See Michelangelo’s Pieta

The Pieta is located inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The basilica is free to visit (though there is sometimes a long line to get inside). No large bags are allowed inside the church, but you can check these in a cloakroom located after security. If you take an official Vatican tour, the tour should also end inside the basilica and take you to see the Pieta sculpture as one of the last stops.

Michelangelo’s Pieta is located to the right as you enter the Basilica. There is often a large crowd gathered in front of it, though they are held back from approaching the Pieta statue too closely due to security concerns.

As you enter into the Basilica you may be surprised that you cannot get too close to the masterpiece as it is behind bulletproof glass. This is mostly due to it being attacked on the 21st of May, 1972 on Pentecost Sunday. A Hungarian-born Australian took a hammer to the Pieta knocking off Mary’s nose, and arm from her elbow, striking 15 blows in total while shouting “I am Jesus Christ, I have risen from the dead.”

Here are St. Peter’s Basilica opening hours to know when you can visit.

Photo: By Stanislav Traykov – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=454102