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Delhi-based artist Pooja Iranna on what makes Michelangelo’s timeless The Pietà essential viewing

Making art accessible to children, one artist and one artwork at a time

Michelangelo's Renaissance classic The Pietà. Source: Wikimedia Commons

ARTWORK: The Pietà

“How should I look at art” is a question that might come to your mind when you see any artwork. It can become quite easy if you follow three simple steps:

1. Look
2. Observe
3. Think

The first two – look and observe – are just about using your eyes and observational skills. The third requires a bit of thought.

Start with the most basic thing when you see a work of art — what medium or material is it. See if it’s a photograph, a painting, a sculpture or an installation. The artist would have made some very deliberate decisions about the materials, style and approach, and these will feed directly into the overall feel and meaning of the work.

Observing a work is about literally describing what is in front of you, Understand the elements that are in front of you. Figures or colour or style or strokes. Is it real or abstract? This is how we interpret it in the second stage.


The final step involves thinking about the possible meaning from what you’ve observed and seen. This is a process of interpretation. It’s not about finding the “right answers”, but about thinking creatively about the most likely meaning of a work. There is no harm in reading the small label which is usually placed on the wall near every work. It gives the title of the work, name of the artist, the material used and also the year in which it was made. The title will usually help you understand what the artist intends to depict. The name of the artist will help you keep in mind his/her style, in case you come across another similar work.

Last but not the least, do not hesitate to talk to the gallery person or the artist if you have any doubt. After all, art is to be enjoyed and can be done better if interpreted correctly.

Let me talk about one of my favourite art works ( though there are many). The Pieta, a marble sculpture done by Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo in 1498-99. The total size of this work is 68.5  × 76.8 inches and can be seen in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican city.


On the first look, we see the body of Jesus on the lap of Mother Mary after the Crucifixion. Michelangelo’s conceptualisation of the Pieta is unique for a number of reasons. He mixed Renaissance ideologies of classical beauty with naturalism.

He deliberately made his Pieta disproportionate in size in order to address the physical challenges created by a woman having to hold the body of a full-grown man, but this cannot be easily observed. Michelangelo’s painstaking attention to detail, the unique treatment of the hair, the skin and the fabric on each figure gives the Pieta its texture and substance.

Nevertheless, Michelangelo’s masterful ability to render emotions from the cold marble is what gives the sculpture its life. There is deep intimacy in the grief-stricken moment between the mother and her dead son. This is conveyed in the tenderness, profound sorrow and humility with which the Virgin Mary’s stares down at the body of Jesus draped across her lap. The wounds on his hands and feet, after being nailed to the cross, are small and he looks to be lying in peaceful repose. The Virgin’s right hand, as it supports Jesus’ body, does not come into direct contact with his flesh. It’s covered by the cloth from her cloak, signifying the sanctity of Christ’s body. Pieta is so beautifully realistic that it takes your breath away.

To me, the message conveyed in Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of peace and hope. The choice of the material and the size of the work give the theme strength and visibility. The posture of the two figures show helplessness of a mother yet the expression on her face shows calmness and tranquility. Viewing this work is a heart-rendering yet beautiful experience for any viewer. 

Reflecting on urbanism and its numerous perils through her works, in Delhi-based Pooja Iranna’s practice both form and texture have played a significant role. Born into a family of artists, her artistic sensibilities are informed by our surroundings, and minimalist works forewarn viewers of possibilities of ecological crisis.


In this fortnightly series, eminent artists suggest on important artwork that can serve as an introduction for children into the world of art

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First published on: 28-09-2022 at 03:23:31 pm
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