Medicine sustains life, but art is why we stay alive

August 1, 2008

An appreciation for Michaelangelo's Pieta can help doctors find a balance between their professional and personal lives.

One of the most beautiful, poetic gifts the human race has ever received resides in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The Pietà or "pity" is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding and grieving over the dead body of her son, Christ, following His crucifixion. Many similar sculptures have been done but none more famous, captivating, or evoking more pathos than the one by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.

The Pietà (1498–1499), which has stirred intense emotions in many who see it face-to-face, was the first of a number of works on the same theme by the artist. The statue was commissioned by the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, a representative in Rome, and made for the cardinal's funeral monument but moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right as one enters the Basilica, in the 18th century.

The Madonna is portrayed as being very young and at peace instead of as a bereaved older woman, and many art critics have debated why Michaelangelo chose this approach. One interpretation is that in his mind her youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity, as Michelangelo himself said to his biographer:

"Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?"

A work of genius survives pride and vandalism

Shortly after the installation of his Pietà, Michelangelo overheard someone remark that he fabricated the work of another sculptor, which prompted the volatile artist to carve MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made it) on the sash running across Mary's breast. He later regretted his outburst of pride as this was the only work he ever signed.

In subsequent years the Pietà sustained much damage. Four fingers on the Virgin's left hand, broken during a move, were restored in 1736. The most substantial damage occurred on May 21, 1972 (Pentecost Sunday) when a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the Virgin with a hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ."

Despite an artist's ego and a lunatic's outburst, the Pietà remains an international treasure. And in the grand scheme of things, it reminds us that art can rival medicine. Or to quote Walt Whitman: "O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, o me, o life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

DR. TROLICE is Director of Fertility C.A.R.E. (Center of Assisted Reproduction & Endocrinology), Winter Park, FL. He is also the Division Director of Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility (REI), at Orlando Regional Healthcare in Florida, and Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Ob/Gyn at the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University.