Pieta casting on display at Old St. Patrick’s to mark 200th anniversary

Two famous pieces of Catholic artistry were joined in New York Sept. 1.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, a private collector moved an exact casting of Michelangelo’s Pieta from its former location at Syracuse University’s SUArt Gallery.

John Spike, an Italian Renaissance scholar and a member of the graduate faculty at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Italy, shared a few words with regular churchgoers and art enthusiasts about Michelangelo and his sculpture during opening festivities.

Casting of sculptures is part of a long-standing tradition of preserving important pieces of artwork, he said. Some of the Vatican’s most treasured pieces of art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, have incurred damages and existing plaster casts have historically helped to reconstruct them.

“Bronze and marble were always considered the noblest, the finest, and were reserved for only the most important things,” Spike said.

The process of creating a plaster cast is relatively quick when compared with the months it takes to form a bronze reproduction. The Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry has been considered the best producer of artistic-quality bronze replicas by the Vatican for more than 100 years. It was this foundry that constructed the bronze cast of Michelangelo’s Pieta, one of the 12 bronzes cast from the Vatican’s original plaster.

Bronze castings of Vatican pieces are very uncommon, according to Spike. They take months to create and require multiple copies of the initial plaster cast, one of which is destroyed in the creation of the bronze cast. Around 30 coats of color give the finished product a deep luster and protect the cast itself from corroding.

Many Catholics and art enthusiasts are familiar with various renditions of Mary holding Jesus after his death, but it was really Michelangelo’s depiction of the scene which made it famous, said Spike. Before Michelangelo’s creation, few artists were commissioned to depict this scene, which is not found in the Bible.

“He transformed the subject in what he did,” Spike said. “Michelangelo shows Mary and Jesus, Jesus’ body as unmarked essentially, clean and beautiful — he shows them as if they were in heaven.”

Michelangelo’s creation is startlingly different than many other depictions of the scene because it does not focus on any physical wounds on Jesus’ body or the agony associated with losing one’s only son. After the completion of the sculpture many questioned Michelangelo’s embodiment of Mary. Why did she look so young? He responded that he could best capture her immaculate nature and the freshness of her eternal chastity in the youthful image of his sculpture.

Michelangelo’s sculpture grips many who see it because its emotions are so complex. Spike likened the message of Michelangelo’s Pieta to the meaning Christians attribute to the words “Good Friday.” There was really nothing good about the actual day of Christ’s crucifixion, but the redemption it offered overpowers the day’s unpleasant events. Because of the good Christians received that day, we now call its anniversary “Good Friday.” In Michelangelo’s sculpture nothing is pleasant about the reunion of Mary and Jesus after Jesus’ death, but the idea of Mary and her son together in heaven is beautiful.

“Michelangelo embodies in this sculpture the Christian longing for the purity and divinity of God,” Spike said.

Viewing of the cast is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. It will be on display through the end of October.

Year for Priests: A diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — I’d like to take “spiritual perfection” as my theme for my time on the “Year for Priests” blog. You may find me musing on the food of Italy or an incident during the handing out of tickets to the weekly papal audience (if you are in Rome, just about every Tuesday from 5 p.m. is “ticket distribution” day; drop in), but I like to think that reflections on both the sublime and ridiculous can contribute to our perfection of spirit.

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Diary entry — Sept. 1: I find the chapel of St. Monica just to the left of Sant’Agostino’s high altar. Her remains have been moved to an ornate silver coffin just beneath the chapel’s altar, on the left is her marble sarcophagus, a large side panel is from the original burial. The oil painting above includes the Latin phrase “Ubi tu ibi et ille,” a reference to Monica’s dream about her son recorded in Augustine’s Confessions:

(Book III, Chapter 11)…she saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, (8) and a bright youth advancing towards her,  joyous and smiling upon her, whilst she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But he having inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping … and she answering that it was my perdition she was lamenting, he bade her rest contented, and told her to behold and see “that where she was, there was I also.” And when she looked, she saw me standing near her on the same rule. (20) … and I tried to put this construction on it, “That she rather should not despair of being some day what I was,” she immediately, without hesitation, replied, “No; for it was not told me that where he is, there shalt thou be,” but “where thou art, there shall he be.” I confess to Thee, O Lord … Thy answer through my watchful mother … even then moved me more than the dream itself …”

Another painting has, in large letters, “Monica Ora Pro Nobis.” In Monica’s case, an especially appropriate sentiment since her entire adult life was spent in prayer for the conversion of her husband and son. Though she lived in ancient times, she is patron of quite relevant issues: abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages and, of course, “disappointing children.” It’s so good to have her in a church named after her son.

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On my first trip back to Marymount International School since my return to Rome, I encountered the caper. I had passed clumps of these pink flowers hanging from the stone wall adjacent to the entrance. A teacher pointed out the famous buds which, pickled or salted, are a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. Yet another harvestable “weed” that contributes to unbeatable Italian food. I am not completely over the shock of finding so much of what is on my dinner table growing in patches and corners of yards — from lemons to this caper to “family” olive trees and grapevines.

Sometimes you hear about the pillaging that took place in Rome after the Roman Empire went into decline. Those who took the statues and put them on their own monuments we think should not have done it, they should have kept them where they historically were. But here is something sad and true that I had not considered: the reason so much pillage was going on during the early Middle Ages was that no one could make anything as good; every appropriation was also an admission that the past was so much better than the present. I realize that I have never lived in a time when that was true, but that I might — soon. It’s not that I have given up on the world; it’s that I have begun to question a world that believes it can stand on its own, with no higher reference point. Here, in a city steeped in the Renaissance and High Baroque, I can see what might have been. Now the case for religion has to be fresh, to each succeeding generation.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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