Beautiful & damned

Standing before Michelangelo’s Pietà

One of the images which accompanies christians throughout the Easter Triduum is the Pietà: Mary who welcomes her son Jesus into her lap just as he’s been taken down from that cross on which he was put to death. Without a doubt whatsoever, one of the most widely recognized depictions of the Pietà is the statue sculpted in marble by Michelangelo for the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. Those who’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it know that it isn’t particularly easy to do so: it’s normally shrouded by a wall of visitors trying to get as close as possible to the Pietà, trying to “capture” it (with their smarthpones, more than with their eyes).

One rainy Sunday morning during Lent, I happened to find myself in St. Peter’s. The Basilica was almost empty. I suspect the rain had discouraged more than one tourist from attempting to reach St. Peter’s at dawn. That day I could see the Pietà without any problems at all. It offered itself up for contemplation to all those who decided to spend some time in it’s presence.

I was struck by the silent and solemn beauty with which the drama of that moment is transfigured, and by the white Carrara marble which melds the two figures into one. The Mother, alive yet shrouded by the veil framing her silent gaze, invites us with her left hand, very discretely, to take part in the unfolding drama. The Son, dead, his naked flesh resting upon her lap. Too beautiful for someone who’s just been crucified, some might say. But it’s through this supernatural beauty that Michaelangelo reveals Christ’s divine nature to us. It’s the beauty of the pure soul surpassing that of the broken body, a hint at the neoplatonic culture within which the florentine artist was immersed.  

Christ’s figure is beautiful. And damned. And this is precisely why I’d have liked to find a way around the glass barrier. Approaching the Pietà with great reverence, I’d have liked to see the small detail discovered some years ago by Marco Bussagli. Christ’s mouth, lips barely parted from one another, is home to an extra incisor tooth, an add-on to the normal four. Strange enough, in later years, Michaelangelo would use this mesiodens to depict the figures of the damned and of the demons in the Sistine Chapel. That is, he’d use the mesiodens to represent those who’ve fallen from God’s grace. So, we could ask, is Michaelangelo Buonarroti a blasphemer? Decidedly not. He carves into the marble what the apostle Paul writes in ink to the christians of Cornith: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor 5:21). That fifth incisor isn’t Christ’s: it belongs to all sinners. It belongs to me. And even if I can’t see it from where I’m standing, the fact that the mesiodens is there gives me much to think about and fills me with wonder. A grateful wonder.

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