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The Pieta in the Night Sky

In the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964/1965, New York set-designer Jo Mielziner positioned Michelangelo’s Pieta (1499) in front of a royal blue backdrop and illuminated the sculpture with 400 flickering lights attached to a halo and suspended on strings. The overall effect was dramatic. Before the Fair opened, the New York Times had reported that the Pieta would be mounted as Michelangelo had originally desired, on an inclined plane which allowed the sculpture to tilt, to make more visible the face of Jesus Christ in the arms of Mary. “The result will be to increase the statue’s drama... just the way Michelangelo had intended” (February 23rd, 1964). From opening day in 1964, Fair visitors were gently steered through the Vatican Pavilion’s snail-like structure by a series of hosts, to arrive at the blue grotto housing ‘the Crown Jewel’, where they were transported on one of three moving walkways operating at different speeds to allow fixed viewing times. These walkways created a ceremonial atmosphere: the crowd became a corps-de-ballet that moved together, in time and with reverence, to the calm and even arrangements of Gregorian chants.


The Vatican had agreed to exhibit the Pieta in its Pavilion at the World’s Fair during the autumn of 1962. This timing is fascinating. From October 1962, the Vatican hosted the Second Council of the Catholic Church. Central to Council discussions was the Church’s engagement with the modern world. This same month, the Cuban Missile Crisis exacerbated Cold War nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The New York World’s Fair motto was “peace through understanding” and the Vatican positioned its involvement in the Fair as opportunity to facilitate peace and to promote dialogue between nations (on his one day in New York on 4th October 1965, Pope Paul VI spoke on the subject of peace at the United Nations’ General Assembly). As Frank Getlein identifies, the Pieta, sculpted in 1499, was symbolic of the ‘dawn of a new age’ of unity between nations.

The decision to exhibit the Pieta was closely timed with another landmark event. In 1961, the Soviet Union sent the first human into space. In May that year, President Kennedy announced America’s intention to land on the moon. The Vatican Pavilion not only intended to engage with modern society in the present, it also positioned itself in dialogue with the future. Described as being 'as close to perfection as the work of man can come' (and owned by the Church), the white marble of the Pieta was displayed as if it floated in the night sky. In the age of space exploration, was this method of display a coincidence? Threatened once again by the 'giant leaps' of science, perhaps the Church partly staged the display of the Pieta to assert its own authority in the future.