The Three-Fold Purpose of the Pietà

One of the most famous sculptures of the Blessed Virgin Mary is humbly tucked into a corner chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Commonly crowded with pilgrims, the Pietà has the privilege of being the only work Michelangelo Buonarroti signed throughout his extensive career and has served three different purposes in its 522 years in the public eye.

After four tumultuous years of war between Italy and the French monarchy, King Louis XII decided that amends needed to be made with the Holy See. While he arranged advantageous marriages and political appointments, he tasked his Rome-based Cardinal, Jean de Bilhères de Lagraulas, with a permanent union of another kind: an artistic peace offering restating France’s allegiance to the Church.

The Cardinal commissioned 24-year-old Michelangelo, a new arrival from the recently dissolved Republic of Florence, to create a sculpture that precisely blended both cultures. The Pietà was just that: a French image with roots in the Middle Ages, fashioned out of Italian marble and placed in the traditionally French chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Chapel of St. Petronilla. Unveiled just in time for the 1500 Jubilee Year, it served its purpose as an artistic unification – and that of a funerary monument for its commissioner.

While its original location as a funerary detail is still debated, the image of the Madonna and her crucified Child is speculated to have been used to mark the Cardinal’s original resting place after his death in 1499. The Pietà served as a remembrance of the man who had asked for its creation.

Its third, perennial purpose, is simply providing a chance to meditate upon the Crucifixion’s aftermath with a focus on Mary. Mary, who had willingly mothered, raised, and faithfully followed Jesus through His life, ministry, and sacrifice on the Cross.

The Pietà’s name doubles as both “piety” and “pity” – in Latin and Italian, respectively. It evokes sorrow in its viewers, but the longer one gazes upon it, the more they are drawn to prayer. Even the Blessed Mother is the picture of tranquility, accepting of her Son’s sacrifice as He lays in her arms; in her Fiat, Mary accepted whatever came for her family and her Son, even if His death was the sacrifice to redeem the world.

The image is as surprisingly serene as it is heart-wrenching, but also invites feelings of hope and anticipation. Michelangelo masterfully created a piece where viewers may feel different emotions every time they view it, simply depending on the details they focus on. Often, viewers might feel several different emotions at once!

Over its years of study by artists and scholars, many intriguing details have emerged with accompanying questions. And while some of the finer details of Michelangelo’s masterpiece may remain mysteries, it seems the perfect opportunity for viewers to make their own insights. After all, the events of Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection are mysteries to us; perhaps Michelangelo intentionally kept some details for viewer interpretation!

Our Lady is celebrated under many names, from popular apparitions to small-town titles. Each reveal something different about the Blessed Mother to us – and affirms what we already know of her love and intercessory power! Deepen your devotion to Our Lady with Miracles, Mysteries, & Mary, a monthly collection of stories, Church teaching, reflections, and so much more – guaranteed to expand your knowledge of Our Blessed Mother. Sign up today to receive this Marian content, right to your inbox!


Colleen R. Schena serves as the Junior Copywriter for Relevant Radio. She is a graduate of Marian University Indianapolis with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology. Colleen has a deep passion for writing fiction and nonfiction, hiking, and nature photography.