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.

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