Suddenly, I see them, Mother. All of the women, the women-to-be—coming and gazing, watching and waiting. They all gather around you. They flock and they gaze. They take pictures.
But do they know?
Do they know?
I see you, Mother. I see you in all of their faces. Young and old, whether they are on the eve of womanhood, married, or long-established on earth. They are seeking and searching, Mary. They are longing to be with you—to be you.
They want to be beautiful.
But do they know?
They are already you. Made to be like you—these. These are your daughters.
I knelt in the caverns of St. Peter’s Basilica just a few weeks ago. In all of Rome, this was the church to visit. There were people crowding, clamoring, clashing together against the glass of a side chapel. They wanted to see Mary. When they did, they posed for a photo, checked that experience from their bucket list, and wandered the basilica for more magnificent statues.
How do they not see it? I wondered to God, the stone floor cold and hard against my knees. There I was in the great central church, in the throbbing heart of Catholicism. I was there, enveloped by sweeping ceilings, towering statues of holy giants, and echoing walls—walls echoing with a medley of tour guides, practicing Mass choirs, and footsteps.
There, in the bizarre space of travelers’ dreams. There, amidst hundreds of passing strangers, I prayed. There, I watched the ebb and flow of visitors.
I watched Her.
They, too, had only eyes for her, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
It makes sense many of us (we visitors and pilgrims) do not see what I saw while on my knees. Michelangelo’s Pietà is undeniably captivating. She was created to be the best sculpture in Rome, was the epitome of Renaissance sculpture, and was Michelangelo’s crown jewel. She and her Son were so significant Michelangelo hand-selected the Carrara marble for them; this marble was the most ‘perfect’ block he had ever seen. So precious was it, the Pietà in this splendid stone, that it was the only work Michelangelo ever signed.
The Pietà captures Michelangelo’s heart, and it captures the heart of every visitor in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the image of the Pietà is the dual emotion of our Mother: her sorrow at her son’s torture and physical death is combined with her calm acceptance of God’s plan. As at the Annunciation, Mary continues to say ‘Thy will be done.’
In this one composition, Michelangelo illustrates Mary’s pain and trusting resignation to God. He shows her at a moment in which she is grieving as a mother, yet maintaining joy as a handmaid to the Lord. This moment is not found in the gospels. It is not in the Stations of the Cross. This moment when Mary holds the broken body of her dead son in her lap is only in the imagining of the Church.
Christ appears in peaceful slumber, after hours of torture. Mary’s eyes are downcast. In their intimacy, the two figures (such a rarity in Renaissance sculpture) form a pyramidal shape: they are both stable and pointing upward. To God.
This occasion of Mother Mary with her Child is cause for reflection, which is the true purpose of the Pietà. Whether or not it was Michelangelo’s intention, or that of the French cardinal who commissioned it for his family’s tomb, the Pietà is meant to evoke compassion for our Mother and contemplation of Christ’s death. The image is more popular in French and German tradition, such as in the rough, wooden Röttgen Pietà from the early 14th century, which is why the French cardinal may have asked for this particular depiction of Christ.
The Pietà invites viewers to hold the body of Christ with Mary. It helps us to gaze, with Mary, on the gift of Christ’s face. At the same time, the sculpture helps us to draw close to Mary our Mother.
That is why I first stopped, why I paused in the middle of St. Peter’s side chapel not so long ago: I was encountering a tender moment. I was being drawn to consider Christ’s Passion. Mary’s demeanor was causing my thoughts to go silent—and to see only Her, to feel only with Her.
I stopped because there, in the Pietà, Michelangelo renders Mary’s character. The one we are made for.
Mary is our hope personified.
She is captivating, full of grace (Luke 1:28). She is obedient, humbled to God’s will (John 2:5). She bears fruit (Luke 1:42), which is every woman’s desire–be it physical or spiritual fruit. She is joyful with a desire to do God’s will (which is evident through all of Luke 1). She is also compassionate, and will suffer with the world for the promise of salvation.
She, as Fulton Sheen writes in “The World’s First Love,” is ‘what God wanted us all to be, she speaks of herself as the Eternal blueprint in the Mind of God, the one whom God loved before she was a creature. She is even pictured as being with Him not only at creation but also before creation. She existed in the Divine Mind as an Eternal Thought before there were any mothers. She is the Mother of mothers—she is the world’s first love.’
Mary is who we all yearn for. Mary, Sheen emphasizes in one chapter, ‘is the one whom every man loves when he loves a woman—whether he knows it or not. She is what every woman wants to be when she looks at herself. She is the woman whom every man marries in ideal when he takes a spouse…she is the secreted desire every woman has to be honored and fosters; she is the way every woman wants to command respect and love because of the beauty of her goodness of body and soul.’
Thus, thousands visit the Pietà every day. Mary invites us into her beauty: she is beautiful. Her manner is a mystery.
These pilgrims, who come and attempt to immortalize in two dimensions what Michelangelo does in three, see all of this in only a moment. They stare, they point. Some of them flash a camera then turn away. Some pause longer, as if to absorb her majesty.
They see her, but they don’t see her.
They don’t see what I see.
They don’t see that she is in every one of them. The women with cropped gray hair and black boots, the three laughing teen girls, the woman clinging to her husband’s arm…
Mary’s beauty is not only in the Pietà, though.
Mary’s beauty is in every one of us.
How easily we forget that we are each made beautiful, each made good. We see the Smoky Mountains, the tops of clouds from the side of an airplane, the misty sunset over a foreign sea—and we wonder. We are in awe. We forget that if, in seven days, God builds toward His ultimate vision for the earth—then humanity is the climax. It is not the light, not the landscape, not the bird or woodland creature that is the greatest wonder: it is Man.
Man and woman are made as reflections of the Creator. Therefore, we are made beautiful. In the Catechism, the Church recognizes Man is made in an initial state of holiness and justice (CCC #384), endowed with a friendship with God from which flowed the happiness of existence in paradise. The Fall breaks this happiness and cripples man’s original state, but these are mended again in a man and woman the world meets two thousand years ago. Mary and Joseph work in cooperation with God. They are co-partners with the Creator: from this identity flows their joy and the hope of existence in a new paradise.
This is what each man and woman desires: paradise. Perfection. Mary and Joseph, as the two holiest and fully human examples we have, are who we are made to become.
If women are made in the image of Mary, men too have a model. Men, you have a saint who comes before you and paints and image of holiness. You are made to be like Joseph. Joseph, the man of faith and obedience who did as the angel of the Lord commanded him in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Joseph, who was upright in taking Mary into the safe haven of his home. Joseph, who loved his family—and God—above himself, and doing all of these things played a part in our salvation (which is in line with some Medieval thinking in the cults and societies of St. Joseph, which honors Joseph as an aid to God in ‘trapping’ the devil by disguising Christ as the son of a man).
In an echo of Sheen, Joseph is the one whom every woman loves when she loves a man—whether she knows it or not. Joseph is the man every man wants to be when he looks at himself. He is the man whom every woman marries in ideal when she takes a spouse, when she unites herself with the man whom her children will call ‘father.’ Joseph is the secret desire every man has to be honored; he is the way every man wants to command respect and love because of the beauty, strength, and shelter found in his body and soul.
The potential to become Joseph is within every man, just as the potential to become Mary is within every woman. Each man is called to accept Mary into his home, to be a source of protection and strength for all of those in his life, to be open to God’s call in his heart or dreams.
We are in a constant state of becoming like Joseph and Mary—albeit in various ways depending on our temperaments—when we are open to God. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as the theologian and philosopher Edith Stein, writes in her ‘Spirituality of the Christian Woman’ that our lives are a process of striving for, succeeding in, and failing again at becoming more like God. ‘Our being, our becoming, does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself,’ she says. ‘However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us if and insofar as we put it in the light of eternity.’
Thus each human is a beauty to behold, for in gazing at another person we gaze a creature made by God, in the process of becoming more like God, and made to be like God.
Do they know? I wondered with God that day in Rome.
I looked at the women with high black boots and short gray hair, the three teen girls laughing, the gangly girl of twelve… My eyes traveled from woman to woman. Each woman was different.
And I smiled.
Each was the same.
Mary was in all of their faces.
Yet the hundreds of people passing by me to crowd at the stone rail and glass wall would only peer and point, flash a camera and leave. Oblivious. They peered at the face of Mary formed by human hands—Michelangelo’s—but they failed to see the face of Mary around them. They failed to see the Master’s work in themselves.
When we gaze at another person, we look at a stone being chiseled and polished—we see a perfect creation in progress.
When we gaze at another person, we gaze at the work of the great Master Artist himself.