“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo Buonarroti
On Pentecost Sunday in May of 1972, Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, attacked with a hammer and seriously damaged Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City[i]. He was never charged with a crime, but in a pretrial hearing he was found mentally incompetent. Sentenced to two years in an Italian mental institution out of “One Flew Out of a Cuckoo’s Nest,[ii]” he underwent twelve electro-shock treatments, was eventually released, and immediately was deported back to Australia where he faded into obscurity. The Pieta had one exquisite eyelid and the nose of the Blessed Virgin smashed off, her right hand broken to pieces and her left arm and hand smashed and knocked off. A painstaking restoration that took eight months ensued with over a hundred pieces, including many tiny chips carefully collected at the site. Some pieces stolen by tourists at the scene were never recovered and had to be reconstructed.
Why such a massive endeavor of many skilled artists and art historians to fix a busted-up statue[iii] that a madman took a geologist’s hammer to? In just one aspect of the effort, to perfectly match the stone, like a graft in a careful reconstruction of a damaged human being, a small block was removed from her back to reconstruct her nose from the exact mold made of the statue before the attack. Donations from around the world funded the rescue project[iv].
Michelangelo only signed this one sculpture in his life and told others the large block of marble he located after a long search in Tuscan Carrera quarries was the single most perfect piece of stone he had ever found. He began an almost two-year project with a broad chisel and chipped away large pieces of marble. Slowly, carefully with exquisite attention to the least detail, he refined his work to tiny careful strokes with small tools and polishing until, as he once said, only the piece in his vision that had been potential in the stone from the beginning was revealed. From the folds of her garment, the veins in the dead Christ’s arm, the realism of her eyes and suffering of her soul, the Pietà is unique in skill, conception, and accomplishment. Considered by many the most important sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, this marvel merged the classical ideal of beauty with the astonishing naturalism and skill that made his art priceless and irreplaceable. This fortuitous marriage of the natural beauty of marble and genius is unique. No effort at restoration could be too diligent.[v]
“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling
Why would the anger and insanity[vi] of an extremely bright troubled man express itself in such radical iconoclasm with a mad passion to destroy beauty? Perhaps that can never be answered either in our current batch of angry iconoclasts or ever. Beauty evokes the transcendent, and beauty is objective in the hearts of human beings. There are subjective modes and varying ideas of what exactly is beautiful, but Beauty itself resonates whether in nature, sculpture, painting, music, or the eyes of our beloved.
“Transcendent” derives from the Latin meaning “climbing over.” From what, we ask? To where, we wonder? I read recently that we mistake heaven as “somewhere” else, and the more accurate insight is “somehow” else. Not a different place, but a different manner of being entirely outside of time or space.
In a time long ago when Michelangelo, Dante, and Shakespeare roamed the earth, the “transcendentals” were three: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. All were aspects of the nature of God to those who understood themselves to be creatures fashioned in Love. Now we understand ourselves to be lucky sentient conglomerations of organized protoplasm and beneath that random collections of molecules, atoms, quarks, quantum variations and energy fields. Accidentally sentient. Protoplasm organized by Whom, we dare not speak.
As to the True, that has disappeared into a pit of radical skepticism. “There is your truth and my truth and who knows?” The Good has melted away into the miasma of the “dictatorship of relativism.”[vii] “Who are you to tell me how to pursue what I desire, etc.” But Beauty still holds its own, and desecrating beauty still offends some deep aspect of our humanity. And Beauty draws us to God.
Bishop Robert Barron describes this far better in a passage from his newest book, “Renewing Our Hope,”[viii] which I advise you to buy immediately and explore in depth:
”Following Dietrich von Hildebrand, we should say that the truly beautiful is an objective value, to be sharply distinguished from what is merely subjectively satisfying.[ix] This means that the beautiful does not merely entertain; rather it invades, chooses and changes the one to whom it deigns to appear. It is not absorbed into subjectivity; it re-arranges and re-directs subjectivity, sending it on a trajectory toward the open sea of the Beautiful itself.”
Well before the war that defined him, Winston Churchill wrote an essay in which he imagined a future where mankind had secured a life of great pleasure, wealth, and convenience. But, Churchill wondered, would that be sufficient for happiness?
Learning to infuse our souls with the reality of the transcendentals Beauty, Goodness and Truth and their Author is the basis for our final happiness.
“What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” Winston Churchill, 1931
[iv] Reuters article on the damage and the restoration.
[v] Controversy surrounded the restoration. Some maintained the marks of violence should be left unrepaired to signify the violence of the times. Others said restoration should leave lines and signs of repair for authenticity, but finally due to the uniqueness and precious nature of the work, the decision was to make the restoration as flawless as possible.
[vi] While striking twelve blows with his hammer, Toth alternatively screamed he was Jesus Christ and Michelangelo.
[vii] Phrase from Benedict XVI. “In recent years I find myself noting, how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak — if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.” Without Roots, Joseph Ratzinger, New York, Basic Books, 2006
[viii] Renewing Our Hope, Robert Barron, Washington, DC, The Catholic University of America Press, 2020, https://bishopbarronbooks.com/renewing-our-hope
[ix] Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand, New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1953