La Pieta by Michelangelo: Sculpture Analysis & Overview

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  • 0:00 Artist/Celebrity:…
  • 1:30 Background Of The Piet?
  • 2:10 The Piet?
  • 4:47 Importance Of…
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the background, creation and significance of Michelangelo's famous sculpture, and then test your understanding with a quiz about the Pieta and Italian art.

Artist/Celebrity- Michelangelo and the Pietà

When we think of celebrities, we often think of actors and their most famous roles. But it wasn't always this way. Artists were once the most celebrated celebrities, and their works changed the world.

One artist, Michelangelo, was at the top of the A-List. He was the artistic equivalent of a Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. He was George Clooney with a chisel. He was Leonardo DiCaprio: king of the world. He was a big deal. And his first major role was as the sculptor of the Pietà.

Sculpture of Michelangelo in Florence, Italy
Sculpture of Michelangelo

Michelangelo Buonarroti, who lived from 1475-1564, was an Italian painter, architect, poet, and most famously, sculptor. He was one of the most influential artists in an era called the Italian Renaissance, the period roughly from 1400-1600 during which Europe saw economic prosperity, religious fervor, and a passionate expansion of learning, science, and the arts.

In a century of some of the most famous names in history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Christopher Columbus, Michelangelo was one of the biggest celebrities. And his first sculptural masterpiece was the Pietà, created around 1498 when Michelangelo was only in his 20s. This marble sculpture was a game-changer for Italian art. The precision, texture, and uncompromising beauty of the Pietà changed the way the world saw art.

Background of the Pietà

Michelangelo was born in Caprese, Italy, on March 6, 1475. He was sent to Florence to study and became an apprentice in the studio of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio as a young man, although he left before finishing his training. He eventually caught the eye of Lorenzo the Magnificent, head of the powerful Medici family in Florence and began studying sculpture under Lorenzo's favorite artist, Bertoldo di Giovanni. In 1494, the Medici family fell out of power and Michelangelo fled to Bologna, and then to Rome. In Rome, Michelangelo received his first major commission around 1498. This commission was the Pietà.

The Pietà

The Pietà is a 5-foot, 8-inch sculpture carved out of a single block of marble. Marble is an excellent stone for sculptors to use because it is relatively soft and can be chiseled, chipped, and polished into smooth, strong pieces of art. Michelangelo was famous for saying that he could see the sculpture inside the block of marble, and that it was simply his job to remove the extra stone and free the image inside.

Although there are many reasons that the Pietà is so famous, the most obvious is the pure skill of Michelangelo with marble. The fabric, the skin, and the hair each has its own texture, and creates a stunningly beautiful masterpiece.


The term Pietà refers to the subject of Christ in the lap of his mother, the Virgin Mary, after he has been crucified and removed from the cross. During the Renaissance, the Pietà was a very common theme in France and Germany. So when the French cardinal Jean de Bilhères Lagraulas approached the young Michelangelo to create a sculpture for the cardinal's future tomb in Old St. Peter's Basilica, the subject was not surprising. What amazed people was how Michelangelo used the marble stone to capture the theme.

In the sculpture, Jesus is draped across Mary's lap as she looks down upon his body in grief. Whereas most Italian artists portrayed Christ during his crucifixion and emphasized his wounds and suffering, Michelangelo's sculpture is calm, and almost tranquil, but still full of sadness. The wounds on Jesus' hands and feet from being nailed to the cross are small. He looks almost has if he has fallen asleep, not been the victim of a violent execution. The focus is on the relationship between Christ and his mother, not the crucifixion itself.

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