Probably the most famous work by Michelangelo, aside from the Sistine Chapel, the Pieta, now housed in a chapel in St. Peter's Basilica. It's remarkable to consider how this exquisite work was created, and even more so when one realizes that it was executed when he was a mere twenty-four years of age. It would take even a master sculptor decades of experience to achieve something similar. It was commissioned by a French cardinal and created in only about a year, from 1498 to 1499, which is even more remarkable. It depicts Jesus after his body was taken down, held on the lap of his mother. It's an odd composite in some ways: Michelangelo chose to depict Mary as a young woman, as she might have appeared when her son was born as opposed to when he was crucified. He reportedly stated that the purpose was to represent eternal and incorruptible purity. It's endured much in its 500-year history: several fingers on Mary's left hand were broken during a move, but they were restored in the eighteenth century, and in more recent times, the sculpture was vandalized when a mentally unstable geologist attacked it with a rock hammer. Some pieces were not able to be reattached and had to be reconstructed, such as Mary's nose, which was recut from a block taken from her back. It is now located between the Holy Door and the Altar of St. Sebastian, now enclosed behind bulletproof acrylic, making it somewhat difficult to photograph because of the glare. It is doubtless a work of genius, heralding great things to come from the artist.
Ancient tradition asserts that the first basilica was constructed over the ancient tomb of the apostle Peter, who was martyred in the nearby Circus of Nero on an inverted cross in the first century AD. After Constantine converted to Christianity he began a great basilica on the site in 324, which had previously been an ancient cemetery in which both pagans and Christians were buried. This structure remained until the 15th century when it was decided that a new, more magnificent structure should replace it. Construction actually began under Pope Julius II (of the Agony and the Ecstasy) in 1506, but it wasn't completed until 1615 under Pope Paul V. Many famous artists worked on the various phases, including Michelangelo, who designed the dome (later greatly reworked), and Bernini, who designed the great colonnaded St. Peter's Square, where many thousands gather on important events and also the magnificent bronze canopy (which is comprised of 927 tons of dark bronze, taken from the roof of the Pantheon in 1633) over the papal altar and the relics of Peter the Apostle. It also fills the great vertical space under the great dome. The marble opus sectile floors seen here may have originally been from the ruins of a Roman public building.
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