The story goes that Michelangelo used to come by St. Peter's Basilica at night, and just stand there before his sculpture, not because he was so proud of what he'd done but because he'd grown to love this Mary, mother of Christ, he'd created. Some say the woman he'd crafted so wondrously from marble had become the mother he'd lost when he was a boy, just five years old.
I don't know any of that to be true, nor does anyone else, but I know the sheer beauty of Michelangelo's Piata' creates stories. It was a commissioned by a rich man who wanted something beautiful to adorn his tomb and finished in two years. Today, 500 years later, the Piata' is as famous as anything you will stand in line to see in Rome. In St. Peter's, it stands where it has since the 18th century, but it's been in Rome since he finished it in 1499.
Because there's so much else to gather your attention in St. Peter's, the Piata', oddly enough, is easy to miss when you walk in. But it's there to your right, bathed in a light so soft it composes a perfect picture. I'd like to tell you it took me an hour to set up this shot, but Michelangelo's masterpiece sits in a frame so beautiful and light so glorious you can't miss.
What everyone sees when they look closely is a woman far too young to have a thirty-year-old crucified son. She seems a child. That's no mistake. Like no one else, Michelangelo might say, she is the only mother of our Lord.
Christ's limp body is muscled and veined to make clear he is not a boy. Yet, he somehow needs to be held. With her right hand, she holds his body, even though her fingers don't touch his cold flesh. Piata ("the pity") is a child mom holding her dead son.
Long ago already observers speculated that if Michelangelo's Mary could step out of the marble, she'd be seven feet tall. But so much of her is beneath her flowing robes that you barely notice. Somehow, as this entire scene emerged from a block of marble, Michelangelo spoke what was there in his vision of mother and child.
The other hand, her left is open in some gesture. To us? To God? In defiance maybe? Or maybe in acceptance? After all, look at the the serenity in her face. She had to have spent her lifetime somehow knowing. Her child was, after all, a savior.
Spend two weeks in Italy, tour a half-dozen basilicas, and you'll see a couple hundred Madonnas and child--flat, Byzantine Madonnas, fleshy classical Madonnas, big and bouncy baroques--all kinds of Madonnas with babes in tow. In a city where the Virgin will always be queen, there are hundreds, in all shapes and sizes.
By definition, Piata isn't another. And yet, I'd like to think, it is: the Virgin of Bethlehem, and her boy, a man struck dead for us, Madonna and child from marble.
Mary's face reminds me of "Mary's Song," a Luci Shaw poem, graced with the kinds of paradoxes she loves: "His breath (so slight it seems/no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps/to sprout a world. . ."
"Mary's Song" is a poem of the Nativity, a poem for the season, this season. I hear "Mary's Song" because there's paradox in a mother's love so big it really couldn't be, and a beautiful boy, the Son of God Almighty, so seemingly finished.
Here's the last thoughts of Shaw's poem:
Older than eternity now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and then finally this line:
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
That's the vision I see in Mary's face here in the Piata, the pity.