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Oremland, J.D. (1978). Michelangelo's Pietàs. Psychoanal. St. Child, 33:563-591.

(1978). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 33:563-591

Michelangelo's Pietàs

Jerome D. Oremland, M.D.


It is my thesis that in the Pietàs Michelangelo's artistic genius allows us to experience intimate contact with the never-aging mother. In the Pietà of St. Peter's, as a portrayal of his contact with the never-aging, "first" nursing (perhaps condensed with his "second" true) mother, Michelangelo allows us to experience return to the young mother of our infancy. As his life was drawing to a close, in the two later Pietàs, probably the only works which he made solely for himself, he allows us to

experience union with the body of the mother. This union, evolved from his early Madonna conceptualization, has an awesome intensification for it is an adult with the mother. It is an artistic depiction of early self-object fusion—ecstatic and mystical. The Pietà in the Cathedral of Florence is an almost literal autobiographical portrayal as Michelangelo watches and assists his return to the first mother, while acknowledging the distant presence of the second. With death rapidly approaching and with increasing regressive reexperiencing, that work became meaningless to Michelangelo and he returned to the dyadic Rondanini Pietà, progressively making the Son and Mother one.

Tolnay, using the metaphor of Catholicism, describes the final statue as depicting Michelangelo's transcendence of death as the Christ and His Mother ascend united. To the psychoanalyst, the Pietàs are dreamlike pictorializations of the adult in contact with the primal phases of development. Through them, Michelangelo portrays for us the curiosity of his early experience and at the same time, possibly enabled by it, allows us contact with a continuing desire as we reexperience a progression now lost to our consciousness. The evocation is intense for it is not simply child with mother—the Madonna. For by coupling the Madonna with death in the first Pietà and more explicitly by returning the adult dead Son to the body of the Mother in the final work, Michelangelo gives us the promise of rebirth. In this way, the feelings evoked are timeless, universal, and compelling.

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