839: Pietà by Michelangelo: Marble, 1499

839: Pietà by Michelangelo: Marble, 1499

839: Pietà by Michelangelo: Marble, 1499

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Jason Schneiderman.


I’m Jason Schneiderman and this is The Slowdown.

Recently, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there was an exhibit called Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color. It turns out that, originally, all of those austere, tasteful, restrained statues I love visiting at the Met were actually brightly painted, and that the color palette of the ancient world might have been closer to the joyful blues and reds of Frida Kahlo’s home décor than to the self-consciously sober off-whites of the Lincoln Memorial.

I have not gone to the exhibit, which features reconstructions of the statues I love. I am still attached to the very wrong idea that those statues are meant to be seen in monochrome. I was taught that bright colors are kitschy and tacky, but that plain materials like marble or wood or glass are dignified and beautiful. But this exhibit made me wonder: Did I believe in the dignity of simplicity, because I was taught a false version of history? Could I be ready to reinvent my idea of what’s beautiful?

The exhibit is still up, and I can still go. Sometimes, I find that the act of confessing my fears and concerns, like I’m doing now, to you, opens up the space I need to find a new way forward. So… Thank you for listening. For giving me that space.

Today’s poem considers an unpainted statue by Michelangelo, depicting Mary holding her son Jesus just after his removal from the cross. I remember seeing this statue when I was very young and being deeply moved both by the posture of Mary’s sorrow, and by the incredible skill of sculpting, by which the cold marble seems as warm and soft as flesh. Here, the poet wonders what color might do to us as the light carrying the image of the statue enters our eyes.

Pietà by Michelangelo: Marble, 1499
by Darrel Alejandro Holnes

Even the Son of God’s body must go cold when it dies
shivering, chicken skinned, and chilled to its core of cuero en cuero
saved for a rough, frayed, modesty cloth he wears
as his flesh lay fading across his
Earthly mother’s lap of robes that hang as
haggard and agonious as hangs her folded face of grief.
Her mourning and his mortality are forever
immortalized in Michelangelo’s marble statue.
If it were painted, perhaps the many reds of man’s red blood would
run on the river of Mary’s robe’s many blue hues; perhaps
the statue’s grief would be brought to life by a mix of
cerulean and indigo swirling in crimson and scarlet.
But there is no scarlet for the woman who watches the
breath she gave her godly child float away from his body in a 
last exhale. There is no scarlet for the man who
knew the world would betray him and still let it take his life.
There is no scarlet for the world who kills its young or for
the god who lets his son die. There is little color to this icon,
little paint to its face, only austerity’s shadows, only divine’s light
in the gray, in the marble, in the sorrow, in the white.

“Pietà by Michelangelo: Marble, 1499” by Darrel Alejandro Holnes from STEPMOTHERLAND © 2022 Darrel Alejandro Holnes. Used by permission of the University of Notre Dame Press.