The Sorrowful Mother (The Pieta) – Michelangelo – in the millennial year of 1500 when he was 24 years old
While I was on my retreat during Lent 2009, one of my prayer assignments was to sit before a statue of the sorrowful mother. I have always had a devotion to Mary, the mother of the Lord, and on that balmy afternoon against the background of the cypress swamp I reflected on all the mothers I had tried to console throughout the forty years of my priesthood. I record for you now the prayer that was in my journal entry for Father Don the next day. Several of those women mentioned in the prayer are still in my life today. I dedicate this blog to all sorrowful mothers to I remember them with love.
Be sure to read the commentary about the 24-year-old Michelangelo and his first sculpture which follows. He chiseled his understanding of human grief, tap by tap, for two years. It is a magnificent meditation. Ponder it for yourself. And unite your own prayer to our Lady to his this Holy Week. There is also a very different image of grief below that I photographed from a book.
mother of Jesus, whose tender love
brought Love Itself into our world,
may those who have never known
the tender embrace
of their own mother’s love
receive the same tender care and love you wish for each of them. . .
for each of us . . .
as you offered the stern, yet tender love of a Jewish mother
upon Jesus, the Son of God
who was nourished at your tender breasts,
cradled in your arms,
bounced upon your knee;
whose booboo was kissed by your lovely mouth,
whose dead body you received come down from the Cross:
You were the one from whom
Jesus learned the joys of human love.
Simeon said ~ holding your little Child in his arms ~
that a sword would pierce your soul.
Did you have any idea what he meant?
Did you follow Jesus throughout his ministry?
Where you among the women who took care of him
and the others?
If so, where did you stay?
Or did you stay at home in Nazareth?
Did you go out to visit him when you could?
To listen to him preach?
Where you in the midst of the crowds
who pressed around him?
Did you have a chance to be alone with him for a while?
Did you give him any motherly advice?
Did you wash his clothes,
fix his favorite meal when he was on the road?
Did you gain a sense of foreboding as you listened
to the murmurings of hostility beginning to grow toward him?
What did you do with that concern?
I think perhaps you knew.
You could see where this was going to end,
because you kept all those forebodings Simeon told you
in your heart.
Sorrow and sadness must have entered your heart
long before that fateful Friday.
But probably not much worry or anxiety because
I think you must have said over and over:
Be it done unto me according to Your word.
Be it done.
. . . Thy will be done.
A mother can never be prepared to lose her son.
And so, dearest Lady, I think of mothers I have known who’ve watched their children die.
My cousin, Lynda, whose beautiful child Robbie who bore her father’s and my name died in a fire at age three.
I don’t think his mother ever got over that sadness.
I think of Marie whose paralyzed son was in prison who couldn’t find a priest to console her after his wrongful death.
I think, dear Lady, that you unite yourself with other mothers
who suffer at the bedside of a sick child.
With all those mothers in Haiti or Chile whose children died in tragedy.
I think of Monica whose son Andrew died of AIDS;
Rosemarie, whose very popular high school senior John died heroically of a brain tumor;
Fran, whose son Jimmy died at the hands of a drunk driver;
Chris who loved two children within her belly and wrote a book to work out her grief;
Florence, the mother of my best priest-buddy Phil
who died suddenly at age 47. “What a dirty trick!” she wailed at God.
The woman whose name I have long forgot whose surfer-son drowned in a storm
in my first week of priestly ministry;
mothers I know whose sons who cannot escape from addiction;
Monique whose son despaired and ended his life, leaving his children.
And I think of all the mothers of the world who are condemned to watch their children die of malnutrition.
How can any of us really know what a mother must feel who must outlive her child?
Dearest Lady, I have loved you since I was a boy. I brought you flowers in springtime
to express my devotion. Still do.
Today, I contemplated the sorrowful image
a sculptor captured in white marble.
When I gazed into the eyes of that chiseled image
for just a moment, I knew what you must have felt,
what my friends must have felt.
And that moment was gift.
A gift I will always remember.
as you yourself shared in Jesus’ passion,
I ask you to be with all those whose hearts are
broken in sorrow.
Receive today all of Jesus’ brothers and sisters on this planet,
born and unborn.
Draw us all into that one great mystery of divine/human love
which is the glory of our Christian faith:
the birth and life, suffering, death and resurrection
of the son of a young beautiful woman,
Son of God,
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
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From: ‘Guide to Saint Peter’s Basilica ‘
This is probably the world’s most famous sculpture of a religious subject. Michelangelo carved it when he was 24 years old, and it is the only one he ever signed. The beauty of its lines and expression leaves a lasting impression on everyone.
With this magnificent statue Michelangelo has given us a highly spiritual and Christian view of human suffering. Artists before and after Michelangelo always depicted the Virgin with the dead Christ in her arms as grief-stricken, almost on the verge of desperation. Michelangelo, on the other hand, created a highly supernatural feeling.
As she holds Jesus’ lifeless body on her lap, the Virgin’s face emanates sweetness, serenity and a majestic acceptance of this immense sorrow, combined with her faith in the Redeemer. It seems almost as if Jesus is about to reawaken from a tranquil sleep and that after so much suffering and thorns, the rose of resurrection is about to bloom. As we contemplate the Pieta which conveys peace and tranquility, we can feel that the great sufferings of life and its pain can be mitigated.
Here, many Christians recall the price of their redemption and pray in silence. The words may be those of the “Salve Regina” or “Sub tuum presidium” or another prayer. After Peter’s Tomb, the Pieta Chapel is the most frequently visited and silent place in the entire basilica.
It is said that Michelangelo had been criticized for having portrayed the Virgin Mary as too young since she actually must have been around 45-50 years old when Jesus died. He answered that he did so deliberately because the effects of time could not mar the virginal features of this, the most blessed of women. He also said that he was thinking of his own mother’s face, he was only five when she died: the mother’s face is a symbol of eternal youth.
Before you go, here’s the Stabat Mater, the traditional mourning song to Our Lady. Click here. Be sure to enter full screen and turn up your speakers. The translation of some of the verses follows.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.