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A Tale of Two Pities, Part II: The Son and the Moon

Rondadini Pietà

Not many people know that the Pietà in Rome is not the only pietà Michelangelo carved.  Six days before he died at the age of 88, Michelangelo was still chipping away at his final sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà.

Sculpted in the waning years of his life, the Rondanini Pietà is a fascinating and evocative sculpture.  It is Michelangelo’s meditation on mortality and the mysterious relationship between human and divine natures. Like the Pietà in Rome, it has certain outstanding features that warrant and reward contemplation.

The most obvious feature of this sculpture is its shape.  In contrast to the triangular composition of the Pietà, this sculpture is crescent-shaped. Consequently, while the first sculpture calls to mind the pyramids (those proud temples of permanence), this latter pietà, with its rounded bottom and association with the moon, emphasizes dependence, transience, and humility.

In his younger days, when admiring crowds erroneously attributed the Pietà in Rome to more established sculptors, an impetuous Michelangelo famously vandalized his own masterpiece in a fit of pride he later came to regret.  Refusing to be eclipsed by any of the other luminaries in his field, the rising star made certain that everyone knew the name of the man whose enchanted chisel could bring the dead to life by inscribing, "Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence Created This" across the Virgin Mary’s sash.  Pondering the sculpture that he carved sixty-five years later, one gets the sense that his final work was made by a much humbler man. It is smaller in scope and less majestic than the Pietà.  Its composition is more tenuous.

Michelangelo’s choice of a crescent moon shape (more precisely, a waning crescent moon shape) seems to signal his acceptance of an inescapable fact of life proclaimed both by nature and John the Baptist: I must decrease

The second most striking feature is the lack of distinction between the figures.  I don’t remember where I first heard about the Rondanini Pietà, but I do remember what struck me about its description.  The person who told me about it said that as Michelangelo got older, he made less and less distinction between Christ and the Virgin.  I don’t know if this accurately reflects Michelangelo’s theology at the time of his death, but it is absolutely true of his last sculpture.

In Part I of this article I mentioned that some anti-Catholics see the Roman Pietà as incontrovertible proof of Catholic Mariolatry.  They regard Mary’s larger-than-Jesus stature as clear evidence that Catholics are closet pagans whose “Queen of Heaven” is none other a thinly disguised Isis or Astarte. One wonders how these anti-Catholics would react to Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà. No doubt all their suspicions would be confirmed.

This piece should be much more scandalous and offensive to them than the other.  Here, the moon imagery is blatantly obvious and the distinction between Christ and his Mother conspicuously absent. Where does Jesus end?  Where does Mary begin?  It’s almost impossible to say.  Having been raised with a not-insignificant dose of Mariaphobia myself (my mother was a late convert to Catholiclism from Pentecostalism), I found the fact that Michelangelo seemed to obscure the distinction between Creator and created disquieting.  What could he figuratively mean by literally blurring the line between Mother and Son?

Reading the following from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man helped me make some sense of it (emphasis added):

When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows I as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

As with most Chesterton quotes, once you read what he has to say, what he has to say seems almost painfully obvious.

Of course we approach Jesus through his Mother—we approach all children through their mothers.  Of course you can’t separate Jesus from his Mother—she is the only source of His humanity.

Take a second to really think about that:  Mary is the only source of Jesus’ humanity. His flesh comes from her flesh; his blood comes from her blood. Of course it will be hard to tell them apart.

In my previous post, I wrote about an interpretation of the Pietà that suggests it subliminally recalls the Nativity and is therefore best understood through a paradigm of Christmas.  I submit that the key to understanding the Rondanini Pietà is found in the words in Mary’s Magnificat.

Consider: what is the relationship between the sun and the moon? How is this similar to the relationship between the Son and his Mother?  In both cases there is a greater light and a lesser light.  In both cases the lesser light reflects the greater light.

Yes, Catholics honor Mary.  Yes, she plays a prominent role in our life, but just as Jesus derives all his humanity from Mary, Mary derives all of her Grace from Jesus.  Just as the light of the moon is the light of the sun reflected, the light of Mary is the light of the Son reflected.  Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord.

Consider also the last distinctive feature of the Rondanini Pietà: when looking at the sculpture from one angle, Mary, as is expected, appears to be supporting Jesus.  But when viewed from a different angle, Jesus seems to be supporting Mary. He has lifted up the meek and the lowly.

Detail of Michelangelo's Rondanini Pieta

Jesus as Aeneas?

I called this article “A Tale of Two Pities” not just because I’m an unrepentant punster who thought it was a clever title, but because I believe the two sculptures we’ve been discussing demonstrate two different kinds of pity.

The Italian word pietà is usually translated into English as pity, but the Latin word from which the Italian is derived can also be translated as piety. I submit that, while in the Pietà, Mary pities us and offers us her Son in a show of mercy, in the Rondanini Pietà Jesus exemplifies the other kind of pietà: filial piety.

Michelangelo’s arrangement of the figures evokes the most famous act of filial piety in antiquity: Pious Aeneas carrying his ancient father, Anchises, out of the burning ruins of Troy to start a new civilization.  This is the origin of Rome, the Eternal City.  In this sculpture we see Jesus supporting his Mother on his back.  Is it too much to suggest that perhaps Michelangelo is depicting the foundation of a new city of Rome, the Church?

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