in Photos; "The Passion" in Italy
Exhibit on a Michelangelo Masterpiece
8, 2004 .- Few images of Christ's passion rival the evocative Pietą.
Though often associated with Michelangelo's statue of the same name
in St. Peter's Basilica, the name "pietą" refers to any representation
of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of the dead Christ, usually
shown held on her lap. In fact, Michelangelo himself produced not
one, but four separate Pietą statues during his artistic career.
it might be appropriate to start out my Holy Week by visiting the
Pietą show that opened on March 18 in the Charlemagne wing near
St. Peter's Basilica.
show it seemed that the Vatican was resurrecting a lost Lenten usage
of temporarily placing terracotta statues in churches to assist
the faithful in contemplating Christ's passion.
through the post-Palm Sunday crowds and persuading the police and
"carabinieri" that my entering the Charlemagne wing posed no threat
to the president of Costa Rica who was visiting the Pope that morning
appeared so daunting that I thought I might turn back. But the moment
I entered the exhibit I was transported to another world.
Truth be told,
I was not expecting a great deal from this exhibit. It consists
of about 150 black-and-white photographs taken by composer and photographer
Robert Hupka while Michelangelo's Pietą was on display at the 1964
World's Fair in New York. Hupka's own passion for the work manifests
itself in thousands of black-and-white and color photos taken in
daylight or by night, featuring frontal and side views, close-ups
and faraway shots.
I might catch a view or angle I had never seen before. The magnificent
artwork has been kept behind bulletproof glass since its restoration
following an attack in 1972 by a disturbed artist who hit the statue
15 times with a hammer, knocking off Mary's nose and causing other
damage. The new arrangement keeps viewers at a safe distance but
also impedes closer inspection.
What I got
was a deeply moving, contemplative experience.
hall introduces Michelangelo and his Pietąs, concentrating on his
first, the well-known Vatican Pietą commissioned by French Cardinal
Jean Bilhičres de Lagraulas in 1498 for the St. Petronilla Chapel
in St. Peter's Basilica and his last, the Rodanini Pietą, started
in 1552 and worked on by the artist at intervals up to a few days
before his death in 1564, and which today is housed in Milan.
Copies of either
Pietą placed at opposite sides of the room help the viewer to see
the evolution of this subject matter in the hands of this great
artist. From a disproportionately large Mary holding the body of
Christ on her lap in the Vatican version, we travel to the other
extreme, the Rodanini Pietą where we are not sure if it is she who
is supporting the body or if it is her Son's body supporting her.
Enlarged images of Michelangelo's studies for the Rodanini Pietą
trace the fascinating stages of this development.
into the pavilion, the entire wing has been transformed. In complete
contrast to the sunny spring day outside, the hall was draped in
black and the air was chilly. In this tomblike atmosphere, photo
after photo of the Pietą lit by hundreds of little spotlights arranged
above my head seemed to float along in the dark.
The face of
the Blessed Virgin dominates the first chamber. From light into
shadow, her solemn, resigned expression envelops the visitor, setting
a mood of meditation and prayer. In some of the photos, Hupka widened
the angle to include the profile of Christ, or a curve of shoulder.
those pictures, the viewer is struck by the brightness of the highly
polished surface of Jesus' body juxtaposed to the matte surface
of the Virgin. The luminousness of Christ provides a glimmer of
hope to the tragic scene.
section offers views of the Pietą from every possible angle. From
the side, from below, in light, in shadow, the Mother and Son are
everywhere. Mary cradles her Son, she embraces her Son and she offers
her Son in images that force one to reflect on the sacrifice made
are Christ's wounds. His hands and feet appear everywhere, sculpted
with intense and unnerving precision. Soft skin, protruding veins,
slender fingers and toes marred only by nail marks. The pathos of
contrasting the limp, folded fingers of Christ with Mary's open
hand results in one of the most intensely suggestive photos of the
At this point
the viewer is ready. Glimpses and hints in the earlier photos have
awakened the greatest desire of all, to look upon the face of Christ.
Penetrating the heart of the exhibition space, the viewer's wish
is granted. The exquisitely carved face of Christ is everywhere.
There is a serene repose to the smooth planes of his cheeks and
brow. In some of the images it almost seems as if Jesus were smiling
in serene satisfaction in the knowledge that "it is accomplished."
away from the beautiful visage of Christ, a few images of the back
of the group allow the visitor to reluctantly take his leave and
to conclude this time of contemplation. But one last large image
bars the path. In a novel perspective of the Pietą, we are permitted
a "Father's-eye view" as we gaze from above at the shining body
of Christ offered up as the perfect sacrifice.
The show, "Michelangelo's
Pietą, photographs by Robert Hupka," runs through July 23. It is
open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., barring papal ceremonies in
St. Peter's Square. Tickets are 5 euros for adults and 3 euros for
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne
University's Italian campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.