Lent, Pietàs, and Self Reflection

Occasionally the stars align, and you plan or end up at a museum when a significant exhibit is on display. This was the case for the Lewis University students studying at the Lasallian University Center for Education (LUCE) in Rome this semester. During an immersive visit to Florence, they visited the Opera del Duomo Museum, which is the museum of the Cathedral, topped by Brunelleschi’s famous dome. The exhibit displayed three Pietàs (image of the Virgin Mary mourning the dead body of Christ) by Michelangelo in the same gallery.

The students were well-positioned for the experience. Earlier in the week, they had visited the Sistine Chapel, which is Michelangelo’s masterwork, which is the Pope’s chapel and visited by the public as part of the Vatican Museums. Then, just the day before, they considered Michelangelo’s David, which is the symbol of the Renaissance. They also reflected on the “prisoners,” or unfinished works by the artist in the same museum, the Accademia. Thus, the students visited the Pietàs to see the original Bandini Pietà. This newly restored sculpture features Michelangelo supporting the body of Christ. What to make of this?

Bandini Pietà

“The students studied the sculpture, which is dramatically lit.” Dennis H. Cremin asked: “What do you see? Who is featured? What kind of materials were used? What is the subject? As we moved forward in our conversation, I asked, why this theme?”

Vatican Pietà

The “Three Pietàs of Michelangelo: No one thinks of how much blood it costs” exhibit opened on February 24. It was organized, in part, for Pope Francis’ visit to Florence, Italy. The Pope canceled his February 27 visit due to knee pain. This is the first time that he has had to cancel travel plans because of health concerns, although he has decided not to participate in some activities because of illness during other trips.

In addition to the Bandini Pietà, the curators of the museum placed high-quality casts of the Vatican Pietà, Rome, and the Rondanini Pietà from Milan. In the case of the Vatican work, it is an early and the only signed work by Michelangelo. It was made for the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. Workers placed it behind bulletproof acrylic glass 50 years ago after it had been attacked and damaged by an individual with mental health issues. So, the reproduction created an intimate connection between the work of art and the visitor. For the first time, you could see the signature across the chest of the Virgin Mary, who holds the dead body of her son Jesus.

Rondanini Pietà

The Rondanini Pietà is by tradition the last work of an artist. It raises many questions. Lewis University Student Reyna Cortez said, “It looked like Jesus has a beard, could it be Michelangelo used his face for Jesus? What could that mean? He had already included himself in the scene from the other [Bandini] pietà, so could this be possible? Also, why this subject?” It is an ethereal work that features Jesus and Mary. But it raises many questions.

Following where the conversations lead can take you in the realm of faith and the arts. This is an area in which Michelangelo dwelled. His art challenges in often unsuspecting ways. What does it mean to return to a subject late in life? What changes in interpretation? In this case, it appears to bring with it greater identification with the subject.

These are the kind of questions that great art raises. The answers are not always clear, but the title for the exhibit was taken from a quote from Dante’s Paradise XXIX, “No one thinks of how much blood it costs”.

The Pietàs and the quote are appropriate for Lent. It provides a time to reflect on our lives and the life of Jesus. Sometimes great art can guide us to ask questions of the art, but also of ourselves.

Lewis University Student Reyna Cortez

About Dennis H. Cremin

Dr. Dennis H. Cremin is a history professor at Lewis University. The Director of the Lewis University History Center is also leading the 2022 Spring Lewis University Rome Program at the Lasallian Universities Center for Education (LUCE) in the Generalate, the motherhouse of the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Rome, Italy.

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