Michelangelo’s Pieta, within Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. (Thinkstock)

Michelangelo’s Pieta, within Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. (Thinkstock)

Schwab: Can one feel awe ‘til standing before a Michelangelo?

To see the sculptor’s Pieta or David in person is to see life freed from inanimate stone.

By Sid Schwab

A respite from The Great Unraveling; something written long ago and updated.

A focused pre-med in college, I was mostly disinterested in the arts. I handled the required English and history courses, a philosophy course, but the finer arts held little attraction.

For the easy credit, I took a creative art class, made a sort of cubist construction, tower-like, that I was a little proud of. When the prof asked what I liked about it, I said, “It looks like it should tip over, but it doesn’t.” Incisive art critic, I. (Recently, a nearly identical structure, a tilting stack of red boxes, has appeared in downtown Everett. Mine was white.) In med school, I entered a creation into a juried art show, and was accepted. “Like smoke,” they described it. Sold for fifty bucks.

Then I spent a summer involved in medical research in Yugoslavia. Enroute to Belgrade, Rome was my first-ever landing in Europe. As it happened, a family friend, Father Paul Waldschmidt, president of the University of Portland, was there at the same time, and gave me a private tour of the Vatican. Wow.

Though I’ll claim a measure of spirituality, it’s years since I felt religious. To the extent I ever was, it was for having been raised in a Jewish family. After attending religious camp, where I learned more about girls than Torah, I figured on becoming a rabbi, sharing my uniquely brilliant adolescent insights with a grateful world. Whatever soaked in rinsed out by the time I was in college.

And there I stood, in St Peter’s Basilica, all but embraced by Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Of course I’d heard of the artist, the name somewhere in the disused part of my brain where resided random names: Rembrandt, Churchill, Botticelli, Marx, no difference among them. In that moment it all changed. I was awestruck if ever the word meant anything. That such life could have been freed from inanimate stone, hot as a heartbeat, cool as skin, speaking in silence, beyond the moment, was outside my experience and imagination. Till then.

I don’t remember how long I stood there, captivated by an apotheosis of exquisiteness about which I’d never bothered to know. It changed everything. Later, Father Waldschmidt showed me the Sistine Chapel, and, yes, it’s impressive. I’m sure I couldn’t lie on my back that long, and I couldn’t draw a pleasingly curved line if someone put a paintbrush to my head and threatened to pull the trigger. But that marble, become flesh, given breath as surely as it took away my own: that was as different from a painted ceiling as a Northwest sunset is from a cloudless sky.

It wasn’t enough. I bought books, read all I could about Michelangelo (boy, was he abused by the Church!), took the train to Florence just to see his David. If he’d managed only one of his many creations, I thought, it’d have been a full life of artistry.

I’d seen Roman statuary, and Greek, and they were impressive testaments to what man will do to win favor from his gods; but they seemed incomplete, air-brushed, anatomically uninformed. David’s hand alone, or Mary’s clothing, any of it spoke more persuasively of perfection than a roomful of the ancients. As did the unfinished giants hunkering nearby David, hoping for Michelangelo’s help as they struggled out of the rock to share the space.

It was like seeing the breadth of the world for the first time, an awakening to what I’d slept through for so many years. It felt as if my own mind opened itself to me, allowing entry into parts of itself I’d never bothered to look for.

Laszlo Toth. The name might mean nothing to you, but I’ll never forget it. Not long after I’d been to St. Peter’s Basilica, he took a hammer to the Pieta, like attempted murder, who knows why? Now Michelangelo’s restored masterwork sits behind protective glass, the magic undoubtedly filtered, maybe less available, physically and emotionally.

Not for me, though. It remains as fully accessible in my mind as the day I saw it, a moment in which I began to see the larger world, was led in new directions, and, without a doubt, made a better person. A better doctor, too.

The memory even makes it easier to recognize and reject the profane venality of Donald Trump. (Sorry. Had to. It’s Saturday.)

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

FILE - A worker cleans a jet bridge at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., before passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight, March 4, 2019. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines owns Horizon Air. Three passengers sued Alaska Airlines on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, saying they suffered emotional distress from an incident last month in which an off-duty pilot, was accused of trying to shut down the engines of a flight from Washington state to San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: FAA bill set to improve flight safety, experience

With FAA reauthorization, Congress proves it’s capable of legislating and not just throwing shade.

French: In war, the grieving must wait until the return home

When death comes for your brothers in war, it leaves a wound on your soul that never fully heals.

Blow: How to respond to childish taunts meant to go viral

When members of Congress descend into click-bait-intended insults, has all focus on legislating been lost?

Krugman: How do you solve a problem like ‘vibesession’?

Most people will tell you they’re in good financial shape, but the economy isn’t. Except, it is.

Friedman: Western Europe sends Israel message it can’t ignore

The decision by three nations to endorse a Palestinian state won’t move Israelis. It will move others.

The vessel Tonga Chief, a 10-year-old Singaporean container ship, is moored at the Port of Everett Seaport in November, 2023, in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)
Editorial: Leave port tax issue for campaign, not the ballot

Including “taxing district” on ballot issue to expand the Port of Everett’s boundaries is prejudicial.

Snohomish County Councilmembers Nate Nehring, left, and Jared Mead, speaking, take turns moderating a panel including Tulip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell during the Building Bridges Summit on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, at Western Washington University Everett in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Candidates, voters have campaign promises to make

Two county officials’ efforts to improve political discourse skills are expanding to youths and adults.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks to a reporter as his 2024 gubernatorial campaign launch event gets underway in Seattle, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. ( Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)
Editorial: Recruiting two Bob Fergusons isn’t election integrity

A GOP activist paid the filing fee for two gubernatorial candidates who share the attorney general’s name.

Expanding grants will help more students get college degrees

For good or ill, the American labor force is being automated. To… Continue reading

Was I-5’s long closure necessary?

It seems there needs to be a rational discussion and possibly a… Continue reading

Balloon releases are harming wildlife

When will the media stop perpetuating the myth that releasing balloons into… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.