Michelangelo in my drawing room

S Balakrishnan
I am not an Ambani to own a Michelangelo masterpiece in my drawing room. What I own, instead, is a tiny and crude replica of his Pieta sculpture, rated one among his masterpieces. What really matters is not money or size but the attitude, the love for arts, I console myself.
Before we see about the creation, let us first see about the creator. Michelangelo’s full name is a tongue-twisting and teeth-breaking Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni; so, better the short & sweet Michelangelo. Michelangelo was also born in Italy (Caprese, Republic of Florence) like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), another much acclaimed senior artist with diverse talents of a very high standard. The letter ‘i’ at the end of the name probably confirms that they are all Italians; another example is Benito Mussolini !
Though born in a minor nobility family, the family had lost its status when Michelangelo was born on 6th March 1475. Michelangelo’s influence in the fields of sculpting, painting, architecture and poetry was so great; yet he considered himself more as a sculptor. Maybe that is why I bought a sculpture and not a painting by him, though a duplicate. But as Michelangelo aged he involved himself more with painting & poetry than sculpting, and also more in the area of architecture as he did not have to physically strain much. As an architect, therefore, he was much sought after in the modern Papal State of Rome for designing imposing monuments. Two of his masterly works-the Capitoline Square and the Dome of St. Peter’s– remained incomplete when he passed away on February 18 1564 in Rome, aged 89 years.
The Pieta (Pity or Compassion): Sculpting the statue of Bacchus, Roman God of Wine, led Michelangelo to the masterly creation of Pieta. Bacchus is the first surviving large sculpture by him (1496-97).  Pieta is not the name of this specific work (as I had assumed) but broadly refers to a common traditional type of devotional image, the theme for which is taken from the narrative scenes of lamentation after Christ’s death. The aim is to invoke devotees’ repentant prayers for the sins committed by them that required Christ’s crucifixion. In Christian art, the Pieta in general depicts Mary with the body of Christ; but it could also depict John the Apostle, Mary Magdalene, or other figures flanking the Virgin. As the theme of Pietà was based on the most touching moments of Mother Mary and her Son Jesus, it appealed emotionally to the devotees; it was no wonder then that this got depicted widely in Christian art – both in painting and sculpture. This representation was more common first in northern Europe than in Italy. It is believed that the Pieta theme first appeared in Germany in the early 14th century. Spreading from there to France, it slowly gained popularity during the 14th -15th centuries. Ultimately, it was Michelangelo who gave an extraordinarily perfect representation to the Pietà theme in 1499.
The Pieta sculpture is indeed a complex masterpiece because the sculptor had to carve out two figures from a single marble block. Critics feel that Michelangelo visualized it as one dense and compact mass to create an imposing impact that also brought out the many contrasts—male and female, vertical (Mary) and horizontal (Jesus), clothed and naked, alive and dead—to distinguish the two components. It is said that influenced by the northern style, he placed Christ’s body across Mary’s lap. Within the limited pyramidal design Michelangelo created such a poignant scene with his nimble fingers that it evoked at once deep pain, solemnity and heroic resignation.
Immediately after completing Bacchus, he was commissioned by a French cardinal in 1498 for the Pietà which is now installed in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Can you imagine that Michelangelo was just 23 then and that he executed it within a year ! Some criticize that Mother Mary looks younger than her son Jesus who was believed to be 33 when he was crucified.  Inspired by naturalism, Michelangelo probably utilized the artist’s liberty to portray Mary with youthful features.  The general belief was that chaste women did not age, and Mary, of course, was a virgin.
Michelangelo’s everlasting fame is because his marble statues are so alive as if the marble has magically turned into flesh! Experts praise that his statues, executed with thoughtful consideration of space, and light & shadow reveal physical realism and psychological tension. The statue of David (1501) is another classic work of his. The ceiling frescoes at Sistine Chapel are testimony to his painting skill.
As much as I enjoy our great country’s art treasures, I would also like to visit the cultural cities around the world to enjoy the works by other great minds. While the original is now estimated to be worth $300 million, what I bought was for 150 rupees. Where I bought this tiny mould sculpture (of compressed marble dust) has significance – the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Health Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu. After an official camp at nearby Karaikal Union Territory, I took off to Vailankanni, a long desired trip. At the Basilica’s souvenir shop, it was love at first sight of this duplicate masterpiece of Michelangelo!
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