Updated: Jun 3
We like two similar sculptures by Michelangelo, the Madonna of Bruges (1505) and the Pieta (1499). As with all art, there are a lot of ways to experience these sculptures.
You can just stand there and be amazed at anyone’s ability to carve graceful lines and moving faces out of solid marble. For the life of me, I can’t think of any modern sculptor off hand who can do anything as beautiful as what Michelangelo did. If you think you know of one, try me.
If they resonate with you religiously, you might be drawn to Mary’s young and serene face. Many believe that was meant to convey her purity. You would expect that from the mother of God and it will provoke a sense of reverence.
There’s a strong emotion to holding them up side by side like this. In the Bruges Madonna, Mary holds her very young son. In the Pieta, she holds that same adult son as he lay dying. Seeing them together can serve as a deep meditation that juxtaposes Mary’s joy in his childhood with her agony at his passing. He didn’t mean it this way but I feel like Michelangelo captured in marble every parent’s fear of outliving their child.
Both sculptures have interesting modern histories. The Bruges Madonna was stolen by German soldiers in August 1944 as the allies advanced towards Germany. They heaved it off its pedestal onto mattresses, drug it to a Red Cross truck, and then disappeared into the night. Thankfully it was recovered from a salt mine near Altaussee, Austria, and returned safely to its home in The Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium.
In 1972 a man suffering poor mental health attacked the Pieta with a hammer and did considerable damage to Mary’s arm and face. Today it is protected behind bullet proof glass, which takes a little of the awe away from seeing it in person. Go visit St Peter’s Basilica and stare at this statue anyway.