You are here

The Pietà

A little language experiment using Google translate:

First, notice the curious similarity, in English, between "pity" and "piety", words which are quite distinct in meaning.

Then, translate each of these two words into Latin, Italian, Spanish and French, the Romance languages. Notice the curious differences, pointing to very complex language histories.

And, finally, do the same translation for the English word "lamentation." Notice the remarkable similarities.

I chanced upon this exercise in my reading of Archbishop Chaput's remarkable book, "Strangers in a Strange Land." On page 207, he notes "Pietas (piety) was a celebrated Roman virtue, and Romans accused Christians of being atheists -- not in the modern sense of believing in no gods, but rather in refusing to accept the gods that everyone else worshiped."

This had me searching out Michelangelo's famous sculpture, the Pietà. This Italian word, which translates to "pity", was chosen by Michelangelo for his version of a great artistic theme of the time, the lamentation of Mary. As you all know, the sorrow of Mary in this sculpture is not readily evident. There is no visible sign of weeping or pain in her expression. Rather, we may be reminded of Luke 2:19. She is absorbed in meditation so deep nothing could rouse her from it. This seems, at any rate, to be the intended portrayal of the great artist. There is, perhaps, a hint of sadness, but it is wholly dominated by a sense of wonderment. Jesus, her divine son, is dead, but she knows that he will rise again. Who would not be lost in wonderment at such a reality?

Lamentation may be the deepest form of human prayer that is not augmented by the Holy Spirit (though of course it could be so augmented). Sensing this, what great artist would not wish to capture it in oil or stone?

Share