Virgin Mary’s secret to healthy, younger-looking skin

[The Pietà] was commissioned by a French cardinal, Jean Bilheres, and this may account for the fact that Michelangelo accepted a Gothic motif in which the full-grown Christ lies on Our Lady’s knees. This was originally a wood-carving motif, and the difficulty of adapting it to the crystalline character of marble led Michelangelo to a marvelous feat of technical skill. This is the first work in which he showed that consummate mastery of his craft that his contemporaries, both artists and patrons, valued so highly. It also involved a new stretch of the imagination, for he achieved what theorists tell us is impossible, a perfect fusion of Gothic and Classic art. The motif and sentiment are northern, the physical beauty of the nude Christ is Greek; and Michelangelo gave the Virgin’s head, so painfully distorted in Gothic Pietàs, a union of physical and spiritual beauty that is entirely his own. Ever since the Pietà was put in place, people have asked how the mother of a grown man, in the depths of grief, could appear so young and beautiful; and Michelangelo’s reply is recorded in both Vasari and Condivi. It expresses in vivid, colloquial form the doctrines of Neoplatonism, which he had absorbed from the Medicean philosophers of his boyhood: that physical perfection is the mirror and emblem of a pure and noble spirit. This is the belief that had led his friend Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco to commission Botticelli’s Venus; and we know, from Michelangelo’s sonnets, that it justified to his mind his passionate admiration of the naked beauty of young men. Our scientific modern way of thinking, with its reliance on experience and psychology, may reject Neoplatonism as a compound of myth and self-deception. But there is no question of the sincerity with which Michelangelo believed (in Spenser’s words) that “soule is form, and doth the bodie make.”

Kenneth Clark in J.H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance, pp. 196-7

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