Standing 6 feet tall, the Pietá depicts a serene and youthful Mary holding her crucified Son, Jesus Christ, across her knees. The word pietá in Italian means pity and is an important symbol in the Christian faith. While this scene is not mentioned in the Bible, it was cited in the Middle Ages as one of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin. Its message is widespread and considered a symbol of suffering throughout the world and now Saint Louis.
The original Pietá was sculpted by the renowned renaissance artist, Michelangelo. It is made of a block of Carrara marble but that looks less like stone and more like actual cloth due to its natural-looking folds, curves, and deep recesses.
The Pietá’s influence reaches as far as Saint Louis, Missouri. In 2014 a replica of the sculpture was placed in the Saint Louis Basilica. In the basilica, it is somewhat hidden as it is located in the vestibule at the base of the stairs leading to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This replica was cast by an Italian foundry from plaster molds taken directly from the original marble in the Vatican in 1932. The replica is made of Marinelli Bronze instead of marble. Since it was brought here, it has become a part of the Christian faith in Saint Louis. The message of Michelangelo’s Pietá contributes to the Catholic faith in the Saint Louis Community by serving as a reminder of the definition of pure suffering in a world in need of compassion.
The Pieta was sculpted by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. He was born into a wealthy political Florentinian family on March 6th, 1475. He was sent away as a baby because his mother couldn't nurse him and then lived his childhood as a stone worker with occasional visits to his family. This perhaps caused his disinterest in school which he started later than other children of his standing. While in school, Michelangelo developed a drawing talent and eventually decided to leave to become an artist, much to his father’s dismay. His mentor and friend Francesco Granacci was a big help in convincing Michelangelo’s father to allow him to become an apprentice to the arts. His family disapproved of his choices and struggled to see the value and logic in becoming a painter. The height of Michelangelo’s success coincided with the Italian Renaissance, a time of great expansion for the arts.
In 1497, a cardinal named Jean de Billheres commissioned Michelangelo to create a sculpture to go into a side chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. At that time Michelangelo was young and little known, and this notable work helped launch his career as a major artist. Though the original stands in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a replica of this piece can be found in the St. Louis Basilica.
The Pietá has also influenced the people of Saint Louis. In a conversation with Rector Simon in the Saint Louis Basilica, we learned about some people who have visited the replica Pietá. The pieta is hidden away from the main part of the church, however when people come across it they like it very much. Many church goers find solace in this tragic scene because of the peace in Mary’s face and symmetry of the sculpture. The sculpture is a triangle with Mary’s face being the apex and Jesus’s face and feet being the apex. The sculpture is visually appealing with many intricacies so often people stare at it for long periods of time trying to take in the message of this sculpture. The St. Louis Pietá is a great addition to the Saint Louis Basilica and consequently the greater Saint Louis community.
From the original sculpture in Rome to a replica placed in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, the pure pity of the Pietá has been a symbol of true suffering for countless individuals. The work of the original masterpiece began in 1497 by Michelangelo who was offered the opportunity to create a monument for the tomb of Cardinal Jean de Villiers de la Grolave. The French cardinal believed that a popular scene in Northern European art could become the most beautiful work of marble in Rome for his remembrance. After Michelangelo completed the Pietá in 1499, the masterpiece proclaimed him a premier sculptor in Italy at the age of twenty-four. Generations of artists and patrons of the sixteenth century admire his unique display of the multi-figured sculpture in a pyramid-like shape that showcases true beauty and immortality. Later in the 18th century, the monument was placed inside the chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where it remains to this day. After having been brutally attacked in 1972 by Laszlo Toth, the Pietá took ten months to reconstruct. The original restored sculpture has since been secured behind bulletproof glass.
Replicas of this artwork have been created by numerous worldwide artists. The replica in St. Louis was created in 1982 in Florence by Fernando Marinelli, producer of bronze replicas of statuary. On loan from the Legacy Sculptures and Renaissance Sculptures, the Cathedral Basilica has had the honor of showcasing the art.
The Pietá has had notable significance in Michelangelo’s life and Catholic history. The Pietá was the only piece Michelangelo ever signed. This was a special work of art even in the Renaissance because at the time multi-figured sculptures were rare. The Pietá shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion, death, and removal from the cross, but before he was placed in the tomb. The sculpture captures the moment when the Virgin is confronted with the reality of the death of her son. The Virgin Mary’s face clearly showcases sadness and devastation, but the sculpture also demonstrates that Mary accepted Christ's death in a graceful manner. The death of Jesus Christ is a huge turning point in Catholic and Christian history, and the sculpture shows that significant event in stone and art.
So why is there a replica of this famous statue here in Saint Louis you might ask? Saint Louis has rich history with Italian immigrants, especially in an area of the city called "the Hill." Further, the Pietá shows a scene that many of the city's Christians can also relate to (most of the population in Saint Louis identify as Christian and the largest single religious tradition is white Catholic).
Roman Catholicism has been a significant part of the culture of Saint Louis ever since the Code Noire of 1724. This allowed Catholics to cross the Mississippi River and was the start of a large Catholic movement in the region. Before this, organized European religion was not prominent, but once Laclede and Chouteau arrived, everything changed.
In 1818, Bishop William Duborg relocated the diocese of Florida and Louisiana to Saint Louis, and this brought about the rise of several new churches in the area. This also influenced many people to join the Catholic Church, becoming become the first organized Euroamerican religion in Saint Louis history. The diocese of Saint Louis was officially formed in 1826 and with this came an even larger spread of the religion. Saint Louis also had a powerful part in the spread of Catholicism west of the Mississippi, providing several social services such as hospitals and schools.
This has contributed to Catholicism being a main part of the community of Saint Louis. One way that this continues today is through the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis and also through the recently acquired Pietá replica. The pieta is a symbol for the people of Saint Louis in showing that humans live in a world of compassion, but there is suffering. Individuals need to help one another through the obstacles of life. As a piece of Christian theology, the statue reminds visitors to the basilica of what Jesus did for humanity. For believers, the Pietá provides hope that God is watching over us, just as Mary watches over Jesus. Saint Louis has a rich history of Catholicism, and this notable piece of art reminds people to keep their faith in God. There are a limited number of these replicas in the world, and Saint Louis is very proud to be able to say that one is located in our city.
St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan
Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, Pasay City, Philippines
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Australia
St. Anne's Catholic Church, Beaumont, Texas, United States
Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, Chicago, IL
St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Lakewood, WI
Cathedral of Our Lady of Refuge, Matamoros, Mexico
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília, Brasilia, Brazil.
The Church of Santiago Apostol Lampa, Puno, Peru
Entrance of Cemetery One, Valparaíso, Chile
Content researched and written by Allison Egan, Eesha Kelkar, Megan Schultz, Jaskiran Singh, and Jacob Stoner.
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