For the art historian Michael Hirst it is “one of the most familiar in the history of art”—the gesture Mary makes with her left hand in Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498–99) in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That sculpture, commissioned by a French Cardinal for his burial site, a chapel in the old Saint Peter’s, was the twenty-four-year-old artist’s breakout work, one that instantly established his fame throughout Italy. Yet perhaps because of its familiarity, Mary’s gesture is one of the least examined aspects of Michelangelo’s art. “We are prone to take the Pietà for granted as we do all the greatest works of art,” wrote Sir John Pope-Hennessy, while Howard Hibbard noted that the sculpture is “one of those famous works, like the Mona Lisa or the

 

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