Pietà and the beginning of creative individuality in art

How did a signature secretly placed on a sculpture at the end of the 15th century mark the individuality of today’s artists?

Author: Sylvia Borissova

Michelangelo, Pietà (1831). St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican

Pietà (Italian: pity) is a theme in Christian art that depicts the Virgin Mary mourning the death of Christ after his removal from the cross; the dead son of God lies at her knee before the hour of his resurrection. This image is imprinted in the visual (spatial) arts—in painting, iconography and sculpture, as Michelangelo’s Pietà has gained the greatest fame and well-deserved recognition over time.

The wonderful sculpture-masterpiece, currently housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, is the first in a series of thematic works by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475—1564) and is sculpted from a single block of marble from Carrara’s centuries-old marble quarries. Usually for its time, the sculpture was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, then a representative in Rome, for his own tomb, where it remained until the 18th century, before being moved to the basilica.

The creation of the sculpture marks 1,500 years since the birth of the Son of God in Christianity and crowns the transition from the classical Renaissance ideal of beauty to statuary by nature that seeks the veins and nerves of living life.

The figure of the Madonna with Christ sitting on the rock in Golgotha is life-size and the composition is based on the eternal dynamics and tension between the masculine and feminine, life and death, nudity and the covering of the body in clothing, body and spirit, vertical and horizontal, the youth and hardships of orphaned motherhood.

In 1972, the statue suffered an unexpected accident: the Australian geologist Laszlo invaded the basilica and with the help of a geological hammer struck fifteen blows on the sculpture, shouting that he was Christ. After the restoration of the left hand and one eyelid of the Madonna, the work was placed behind armored glass to the right of the basilica’s entrance.

It is astonishing that the sculpture, commissioned on August 26, 1498 and completed the following year, came out of the hands of the incredible mastery of only 24-year-old Michelangelo. What is also striking, however, is that today, in the age of iconic names, hardly anyone would pay attention that Pietà is the only work signed by Michelangelo. On the girth of the Virgin Mary through the breast, we can read engraved the following:


(*Michel-Angelo Buonarroti, Florentine, carved this)

Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century Italian art historian, painter and architect, recounts in his 1568 biography of the artist how the latter once noticed that people from Lombardy had gathered in front of the sculpture, and one of them exclaimed in admiration, “[T]his is our Gobbo* from Milan” (*nickname of the Italian sculptor and architect Cristoforo Solari). So one night Michelangelo entered the tomb and carved his name with a burin on the sculpture to stop this attribution of his works to another; but then he regretted his vanity and did not allow himself to sign his works a second time. The modern expertise of the sculpture, however, refutes this beautiful legend—the ribbon on the Virgin’s clothes was designed in advance precisely for Michelangelo’s signature to be placed and easily visible, although the letters look spontaneously carved. The division of Michelangelo’s name into two words, Mikel A(n)gelus, emphasizes his connection with his namesake Michael the Archangel and presents the image of the artist as a divinely inspired creator who conveys God’s messages and ideas like angels.

But whether we choose to follow the researchers’ opinion or prefer to believe the legend, “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better”—according to Cardinal de Bilhères’ order, still keeps engraved on the heart of the Virgin Mary one’s urge to write one’s name in the world as proof that one exists and that what one has created from one’s efforts and work, under one’s own hands, is ultimately one’s work. In fact, Michelangelo used the style of signatures and imperfect verb tense, which the ancient Greek sculptures Apelles and Polykleitos engraved on their creations. But this gesture takes on a perfectly new meaning during the Renaissance:

If the aesthetics of the Middle Ages assumed that the originator, God, is in the soul of every man and so every work of art turns out to be only God’s work, then Renaissance art, which instead of the high and often gloomy skies begins to stare at the divine and the unbelievable in the purely human trinity of spirit, soul and body, manages to regain from the church the idea of man himself as creator and author. And the divine trail remains, of course, in the idea of in-spir-ation.

That is why the engraved signature on Michelangelo’s Pietà is widely perceived as a symbol of the differentiation of man as a creator from the guardianship of religion.


  • Michelangelo. Pietà. Source: Stanislav Traykov. (Own photo work). Wikimedia Commons.
  • The Ark of Grace. 2013. Michelangelo’s only signature, carved across the Virgin’s sash: “Michael. Agelus. Bonarotus Florent Faciebat”. // The Ark of Grace. (Blog). October 26. URL: https://thearkofgrace.com/2013/10/26/pieta-1498-1499/
  • Wang, A. J. 2004. Michelangelo’s Signature. // The Sixteenth Century Journal. 35 (2): 447–473.
  • Тодоров, Цв. Льогро, Р. Фокрул, Б. 2006. Зараждането на индивида в изкуството. София: Кралица Маб.

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