The first thing you notice—for the eye always ungraciously seeks out irregularity, imperfection—is that troublingly thin and graceless leg at the bottom of the group.
The Duomo Pietà or (Deposition) c. 155o 226 cm (89 in), in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Fl0rence
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It bothers for three reasons: one, it is pitifully thin.
The greatest of Michelangelo’s figures have robust limbs. He exaggerated their breadth, their strength, and their complexity in order to magnify and exploit their beauty. That exaggerated robustness is the hallmark of his style—it is what the world means by “a Michelangelo”. The arms of this very Duomo Pietà are easily recognizable as Michelangelo’s—no one else could make them so beautiful.
And that is why the folded leg—so meagre, so stick-like—surprises and disappoints. It is the leg of an old man and gives the poor Christ a paralytic look. Learning that Michelangelo was a depressed old man when he sculpted this Christ, one wonders, meanly, if he hadn’t used his own age-withered leg as a model (until one remembers that the master knew a leg by heart and didn’t need to refer to his own). How could he have sculpted such a trivial leg for this wonderful Christ? Did his aesthetic judgment black out?
That leg bothers—two—because it is folded at such a shockingly graceless right angle.
Curves, not angles, are the stuff of beauty. Some angles are unavoidable, of course; but you will see no other by Michelangelo with such a prominent role in the general design. You would have expected the master to ease the eye away from that ugly angle with a swirl of cloth or the trunk of a tree. See how the Magdalene’s curved arm relieves the stiffness of Christ’s thigh and closes a circle around the central parts of the group. But the lower half of the leg stands there very, very nakedly and calls away from the beauty of the top half of the group.
And, finally—three—the leg offends because it doesn’t seem to support the weight of Christ’s body, which is about to drop to the ground in spite of all the efforts of the three figures around it. The composition is top-heavy: all the interest of the sculptural group is four feet off the ground.
At the bottom of any statue you expect to see some strong support for it. It has to deal with both real gravity (the stone’s) and the fictional gravity of the composition. Here the measures against the fictional gravity are accounted for: Nicodemus is holding Christ up. The body rests partly on the Virgin’s lap. The other Mary on Christ’s right, though she takes none of its weight, is there to steady the body should it fall her way. There is no weight at all on that folded right leg.
And yet all that apparent support doesn’t convince. Somehow, we aren’t willing to play along so far as to trust Nicodemus’s muscles. Christ’s body is three feet in the air and sliding off the Madonna’s lap; and the only real support we see for it is that skinny leg. And it has just buckled.
Michelangelo gave a whole list of reasons for destroying his statue but the ugly leg wasn’t one of them. So do we have to conclude that he approved of it? It looks finished; and in any case, further work on it would not have made it better, given its defects. And—by the way—where is the other leg, the one Michelangelo took away; and where did it belong on the statue?
Read the answers to these questions in The Pietà Michelangelo Destroyed 2