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Roettgen Pieta Essay

Differences of Michelangelo's Pieta and the Rottgen Pieta

I am creating a kiosk, which will run a slide show of famous works of sculpture. Two of the works that I am wishing to include in the display are Pietà¡s. However I am needing assistance in comparing Michelangelo's Pieta, to the German Pieta, commonly known as the Rottgen Pietta. Provide background on the pieces thus they will answer the following questions.

1 - What is the artist trying to convey in each of these two very different interpretations? For instance, I am wishing to compare and contrast the approaches used by each of these two artists, the symbolism, the materials used, the pose, and the facial expressions.
2 - What bearing did the different centuries have upon the two very different approaches? 3 - The German Pieta is from the Late Gothic period. Michelangelo was an Italian Renaissance artist. How do differing regional influences and differing time periods affect the artworks produced?

From the information that I have gathered - the Michelangelo's Pieta is a marble carved statue that currently rests in the Basilica of St. Peters in Rome. Due the time period it was made to depict figures or a feeling that was true to life. The features of both Mary and Jesus are delicate and the wounds have minimal or subtle detail. Thus, it would appear that Michelangelo is wishing to draw attention from the wounds and to that of the feelings of Mary within the piece. Thus, this was a piece that depicted the apparent despair of Mary - her being one of a young woman at peace but also in despair thus it was a truly masterful artistic design of the sculpture. As the body of Christ had great detail which relayed muscles, veins, ribs, nerves and other humanistic aspects yet it also allowed one to still view it as the form that it was - and that was the body of a corpse. The utilization marble assisted Michelangelo to depict such detail within this statue. He signed this piece which from what I read he had trouble with - as during this time they were cratsman and not true artists - thus they did not sign their name to take credit so to speak for pieces. However, he signed this piece which provided him guilt originally and caused him great struggle due to his religious faith.

However, the German or Rottgen Pieta which was done by an unknown artist is made of wood which was harder to instill such detail. This peace however seems to focus less on the spiritualist feelings of Mary at peace or love of Jesus but at the sorrow of the occasion. This is apparent with the oversized features or body parts such as the heads to draw attention to their facial expression and sorrow throughout the piece.

These pieces not only show how the utilization of artistic design can change the mood and interpretation of work. An artist can be guided by inner emotions, thoughts and feelings and also by outer surrounds which can all affect the outcome of their individual pieces.

However I am very shaky within this subject thus I am unsure if my interpretation is correct and/or would like further assistance if at all possible.

Solution Preview

The Rottgen Pieta is typical of German expressionism - a style employed by German sculptors and painters that emphasized expressive lines, strange proportions, and exaggerated spatial relationships. It was a style emphasized by German mysticism, and the style valued the emotional impact and subjective /personal connection with God over accuracy. It was believed that one could use their feelings to unite themselves personally with God. This is the idea behind the Rottgen Pieta. The desire for personal communion with God led artists to represent figures with strong emotions. Here, in this work is a suffering Christ and a very sorrowful Virgin Mary. The grotesque nature of the dead Christ, in his rigor mortis state, is meant to hold the viewer's attention so that they may actual "feel" the suffering of Christ. His body is emaciated, his wounds leak rigid rivers of blood, and his face shows the full ...

Solution Summary

This solution provides assistance in comparing Michelangelo's Pieta, to the German Pieta, commonly known as the Rottgen Pietta. It also offers a snapshot of the historical period in which each item was created.

Michelangelo, Pieta, c. 1498-1500, marble

Michelangelo carved a number of works in Florence during his time with the Medici, but in the 1490s he left Florence and briefly went to Venice, Bologna, and then to Rome, where he lived from 1496-1501.  In 1497, a cardinal named Jean de Billheres commissioned Michelangelo to create a work of sculpture to go into a side chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The resulting work – the Pieta – would be so successful that it helped launch Michelangelo’s career unlike any previous work he had done.

Michelangelo claimed that the block of Carrara marble he used to work on this was the most “perfect” block he ever used, and he would go on to polish and refine this work more than any other statue he created.

The scene of the Pieta shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after his crucifixion, death, and removal from the cross, but before he was placed in the tomb.  This is one of the key events from the life of the Virgin, known as the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which were the subject of Catholic devotional prayers.  The subject matter was one which would have probably been known by many people, but in the late fifteenth century it was depicted in artworks more commonly in France and Germany than in Italy.

This was a special work of art even in the Renaissance because at the time, multi-figured sculptures were rare.  These two figures are carved so as to appear in a unified composition which forms the shape of a pyramid, something that other Renaissance artists (e.g. Leonardo) also favored.

An examination of each figure reveals that their proportions are not entirely natural in relation to the other.  Although their heads are proportional, the Virgin’s body is larger than Christ’s body.  She appears so large that if she stood up, she would likely tower over her son.  The reason Michelangelo did this was probably because it was necessary so that the Virgin could support her son on her lap; had her body been smaller, it might have been very difficult or awkward for her to have held an adult male as gracefully as she does.  To assist in this matter, Michelangelo has amassed the garments on her lap into a sea of folded drapery to make her look larger.  While this drapery serves this practical purpose, it also allowed Michelangelo to display his virtuosity and superb technique when using a drill to cut deeply into the marble.  After his work on the marble was complete, the marble looked less like stone and more like actual cloth because of its multiplicity of natural-looking folds, curves, and deep recesses.

In her utter sadness and devastation, she seems resigned to what has happened, and becomes enveloped in graceful acceptance. Michelangelo’s talent in carving drapery is matched by his handling of the human forms in the Christ and the Virgin, both of whom retain a sweet tenderness despite the very tragic nature of this scene.  This is, of course, the moment when the Virgin is confronted with the reality of the death of her son.  In her utter sadness and devastation, she seems resigned to what has happened, and becomes enveloped in graceful acceptance.  Christ, too, is depicted almost as if he is in a peaceful slumber, and not one who has been bloodied and bruised after hours of torture and suffering.  In supporting Christ, the Virgin’s right hand does not come into direct contact with his flesh, but instead it is covered with a cloth which then touches Christ’s side.  This signifies the sacredness of Christ’s body.  Overall, these two figures are beautiful and idealized, despite their suffering.  This reflects the High Renaissance belief in Neo-Platonic ideals in that beauty on earth reflected God’s beauty, so these beautiful figures were echoing the beauty of the divine.

Around the time the work was finished, there was a complaint against Michelangelo because of the way he depicted the Virgin.  She appears rather young – so young, in fact, that she could scarcely be the mother of a thirty-three-year-old son.  Michelangelo’s answer to this criticism was simply that women who are chaste retain their beauty longer, which meant that the Virgin would not have aged like other women usually do.

Another noteworthy incident after the carving was complete involves the inscription on the diagonal band running over the Virgin’s torso.  Vasari tells us about the reason for this inscription in one of his passages about the life of Michelangelo:

Here is perfect sweetness in the expression of the head, harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the pulses and veins so wrought, that in truth Wonder herself must marvel that the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute so divinely and so perfectly, in so short a time, a work so admirable; and it is certainly a miracle that a stone without any shape at the beginning should ever have been reduced to such perfection as Nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Such were Michelagnolo’s love and zeal together in this work, that he left his name a thing that he never did again in any other work written across a girdle that encircles the bosom of Our Lady. And the reason was that one day Michelagnolo, entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan.” Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.
Vasari’s Lives of the Artists

This was the only work of Michelangelo to which he signed his name.

The Pieta became famous right after it was carved.  Other artists started looking at it because of its greatness, and Michelangelo’s fame spread.  Since the artist lived another six decades after carving the Pieta, he witnessed the reception of the work by generations of artists and patrons through much of the sixteenth century.

In more modern times, the Pieta has experienced some colorful events.  In 1964, it was lent to the New York World’s Fair; afterwards, Pope Paul VI said it wouldn’t be lent out again and would remain at the Vatican.  In 1972, a Hungarian-born man (later found to be mentally disturbed) rushed the statue with a hammer and started hitting it, including the left arm of the Virgin, which came off, and her head, breaking her nose and some of her left eye.  Today, you can visit the statue in New St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Further Reading

Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture, by William E. Wallace

Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534, by Michael Hirst

Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, by James Hall

Michelangelo’s “Pieta” Statue Replica


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