Beauty and goodness, and grief and pity, alive in the dead marble," began a poem by one spectator awestruck by Michelangelo's earliest masterpiece: the marble Pietà that now stands in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The term pietà (meaning both "pity" and "piety") is used to describe works of art picturing the dead Christ held by his mother after he has been taken down from the cross. In Michelangelo's sculpture (c. 1497-1500), Mary cradles the body of her son in her lap. The work shows a breathtaking level of skill for a 25-year-old artist and emulates the delicate beauty and utter calm of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Influenced in his youth by the humanist circle around Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo came to believe that art should not merely copy reality but strive for the ideal.

The quiet beauty of the Pietà has Christian significance as well. When contemporaries described the Pietà as "perfect," they were making a theological statement, which Michelangelo shared: Christ's outward physical perfection mirrors his inner spiritual perfection as the Son of God. There is no blood evident, and Christ's wounds are barely visible. His calm beauty points away from his suffering and death and toward his ultimate victory.

Decades after carving the St. Peter's sculpture, when he was in his 60s, Michelangelo returned to the image of the dead Christ in drawings and sculptures. He continued to explore this theme until his death. The St. Peter's Pietà was a public work commissioned by a French cardinal. But the later Pietàs and related drawings were private, highly personal creations bound up with the artist's deep belief in Christ's gift of salvation to those who have faith. They also reveal his awareness of his own sin and imperfection ...

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