At the feet of genius

The restored Pieta, by Michelangelo, at St Peter’s Basilica. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The restored Pieta, by Michelangelo, at St Peter’s Basilica. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
An intimate audience with Renaissance art made a lasting impression on Jillian Porteous.

The visual arts have been my passion since early childhood, so my first OE to Europe at age 21 and ensuing experiences were a revelation to me. In the early ’70s my girlfriend and I hitchhiked through Europe. There were many challenges but we had lots of fun. I enjoyed the excitement and stimulation of newness and the freedom of travel. One of my standout moments was visiting St Peter’s, in Rome.

I found myself alone in the most exquisite building, cavernous, filled with colours and textures, hidden alcoves and shafts of light. In the distance I could hear the sounds of a Mass being conducted, with accompanying mellifluous voices drifting through the air.

I roamed the basilica, struck by the beauty of its ornate mosaics and the variety of patterned marble; there were strange and wonderful sculptures, fascinating to one who had limited experience of great art.

Finally, I came to Michelangelo’s Pieta; my visit was before the Toth incident, so I could walk up to the sculpture and touch. I still remember the cool, satin feel of the marble. The flesh looked real, the supple deflated quality of Christ’s body, stretched horizontally across the pyramidal strength of Madonna’s figure, she clothed within a cascade of cloth folds that descend from her beautiful and youthful face. Her posture seemed to question not only her loss but communicated a universal sorrow, a pathos that was visceral. This was my first exposure to remarkable, elevated art and it left a lasting impression on me.

In the ’90s, my partner and I visited St Peter’s. I specifically wanted to see the Pieta: this time it was a very different experience. We could hardly move for the throng of people. When I finally struggled to the sculpture it was behind a thick protective sheet of glass. The massed tourists were madly taking photos and the blinding flashes bounced off the glass, making it impossible to really see the sculpture. And so, I am grateful for my earlier encounter with Michelangelo’s Pieta and the lasting emotional and visual impact that it gave me.

On May 21, 1972, Laszlo Toth (a Hungarian-born Australian geologist), wielding a geologist’s hammer and shouting, ‘‘I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead’’, smashed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. In view of his apparent insanity, Toth was never charged with the crime, but committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital.

- Jillian Porteous is a painter and ceramicist, and member of the Cromwell-based Hullabaloo Art Collective.  


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You describe my sentiments exactly. I just sat there, the year 1969, wished everyone else gone, couldn't understand how the masses could walk by so casually.

I was teary, never thought a statue could touch me so deeply. Thank you for describing your experience.