In the Pieta, Michelangelo approached a subject which until then had been given form mostly north of the Alps, where the portrayal of pain had always been connected with the idea of
redemption: it was called the "Vesperbild" and represented the seated Madonna holding Christ's body in her arms. But now the twenty-three year-old artist presents us with an image of the
Madonna with Christ's body never attempted before. Her face is youthful, yet beyond time; her head leans only slightly over the lifeless body of her son lying in her lap. "The body of the dead
Christ exhibits the very perfection of research in every muscle, vein, and nerve. No corpse could more completely resemble the dead than does this. There is a most exquisite expression in the
countenance. The veins and pulses, moreover, are indicated with so much exactitude, that one cannot but marvel how the hand of the artist should in a short time have produced such a divine work."
One must take these words of Vasari about the "divine beauty" of the work in the most literal sense, in order to understand the meaning of this composition. Michelangelo convinces both himself and us of the divine quality and the significance of these figures by means of earthly beauty, perfect by human standards and therefore divine. We are here face to face not only with pain as a condition of redemption, but rather with absolute beauty as one of its consequences.