Michelangelo’s next-to-last sculpture bears witness to the artist’s personal faith. According to contemporary sources, he meant this work to adorn the altar near which he expected to be buried in a Roman church. Begun around 1546-1547, the Pietà was abandoned at the end of 1555, when Michelangelo mutilated it: a destructive act due to the elderly master’s frustration at finding flaws in the marble block. Pieced back together, the work was acquired in 1671 by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and placed in the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo; in 1721 it was transferred to the Duomo and set opposite the Holy Sacrament altar.
Carved in the first years of the Council of Trent, the Pietà highlights the figure of Christ, underlining the Catholic conviction that in the Mass the Savior’s body is made truly present; the Council reiterated this definition of the Eucharist with a decree published in 1551, while Michelangelo was still at work on the group. In the standing personage holding Christ – Nicodemus, one of the men who removed Jesus’ body from the cross -, Michelangelo moreover represents himself; Nicodemus’s face, marked by deep feeling, is the aged sculptor’s self-portrait. Michelangelo’s love for Christ is clearly stated in sonnets he wrote in the same years, one of which is transcribed in this room.