There is the lost leg in place and now we understand the importance it had in the composition. It balanced off the figure of the Magdalene opposite and made the group a triangle. A circle within a triangle. It also showed how Christ’s body was supported: that left leg, the thigh, and the pelvis rest solidly on the Madonna’s knee (or a rock). Nicodemus is only dealing with the top half of the body—centering it above its rock support. Now most of the downward thrust of the one-legged version is gone. Christ is not going to fall.
There was a third job for that left leg. It gave a dynamism to the lower half of the group which it now lacks in the big marble version. Though the legs are lifeless, the way they pivot and twist shows their flexibility and makes us believe that they are about to swivel again, or could. The right knee has fallen slightly lower in this model too, which gives the impression of greater tension, especially when taken together with the other leg, which is not simply parallel but is bent at another angle. The two legs “walk” a little.
And finally, the harshness of the right angle of the only surviving leg is mitigated when it is contemplated together with the less acute angle of the other leg. The eye is now led to a point where the two legs meet—the jutting left knee; and is thus brought again into the basic circle of the design instead of downwards.
These are happy discoveries because they mean that Michelangelo’s original statue did not have, or should not have had, the faults which cry out in the one that has come down to us. The old Master was still accountable—he hadn’t lost his judgment.
But there remains the biggest eyesore of all: that paralytic leg. It doesn’t look too thin in the model. Why did Michelangelo sculpt it so thin?
Here we come to the truly sad part of the story of this Pietà: Michelangelo let himself be talked into allowing a third-rate sculptor to repair and finish it.
Vasari says a servant of Michelangelo’s persuaded him to give or sell the broken statue to a rich man named Bandini; and to let a sculptor called Tiberio Cacagni finish it according to Michelangelo’s models. “This would mean that Michelangelo’s labours would not have been thrown away, [the servant] said. Michelangelo was happy with this arrangement, and he gave the block to them as a gift. It was immediately carried off and subsequently put together by Tiberio who added God knows how many pieces.” (Vasari, Life of Michelangelo)
So Michelangelo’s own angry destruction of the statue was only the first and the lesser tragedy. The Master’s mutilation, though a heart-breaking thing, need not have meant the destruction of all beauty. Accidental—even intentional—mutilation doesn’t necessarily kill a work of art.
No. The one real destruction, real mutilation, is a finishing job by another sculptor. Every one of his chisel strokes, even his polishing, erases forever the master’s delicate touch and all the clues of how he might have gone on. Cacagni died before he could do as much evil as he proposed; but he did enough. He started by putting together the pieces Michelangelo had turned over to him; and to put them in place he needed to add some—“God knows how many”, says Vasari in a sigh that shows his disapproval of the sculptor’s doctoring. Which pieces? What was Cacagni’s “contribution” to the Pietà?
See The Pietà Michelangelo Destroyed 3 to find out.