On this day in 1972, a mentally disturbed geologist vandalised Michelangelo’s Pietà at the Vatican in Rome, Italy, while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!”
Michelangelo’s Pietà is one of the world’s most famous works of art. Translated as “Pity,” the sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary mourning over her son Jesus. Sculpted in the late 1490s, Michelangelo was only in his early 20s when he completed it. Michelangelo had recently moved to Rome from Florence, and the Pietà was his first major commission. It was to be the funeral monument for a French Cardinal. With this sculpture, Michelangelo took the theme of the Pity or Compassion, a subject more popular north of Italy, and the strong naturalism and classicism that was popular in Italy at the time.
The result was something new. The sculpture is truly a masterpiece. Despite the massive size (measuring 174cm by 195 cm) and the hard marble material, Michelangelo infused life into the folds of both Mary’s drapery and Jesus’ soft flesh. The realism of the piece is supposed to elicit sadness from viewers as they join Mary in her mourning. It is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed.
As St Peter’s Basilica underwent demolition, new designs, and reconstruction, the Pietà was frequently moved. Four fingers on Mary’s left hand were broken during a move and subsequently restored. But the most damage was sustained on 21 May 1972.
It was 11:30 AM on Pentacost Sunday, and as worshippers were waiting for the Pope’s blessing, Laszlo Toth, a 33-year-old Hungarian-Australian geologist, dashed past the guards and attacked the Pietà with a sledgehammer, shouting “I am Jesus Christ!” Fifteen blows cleaved off Mary’s nose, chipped one of her eyelids, and removed her arm from the elbow, causing her fingers to snap off when they hit the floor.
Toth was pulled away from the sculpture and subdued by bystanders, the first of which was American sculptor Bob Cassily. Less helpful bystanders actually took many of the sculpture’s broken pieces. Only three pieces were returned. Amongst the missing pieces was Mary’s nose, which had to be reconstructed using a piece of marble from her back. Yielding feather dusters, Vatican officials meticulously collected more than 50 pieces of marble.
Toth was never charged for the crime. On 29 January 1973, he was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital, and was released two years later and immediately deported to Australia.
The Pietà is now protected by bullet-proof glass.
Image Caption: Michelangelo completed the “Pietà” when he was only in his early 20s.