Untold story of Notre Dame’s own world-renowned sculpture

Notre Dame’s own version of sculptor Ivan Meštrović’s Pietà is located in a side chapel of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. This nine-foot-tall marble statue depicts Jesus after the Crucifixion, held by St. Joseph of Arimathea, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Only the Vatican and Notre Dame have a claim to this great treasure, yet the story of this Pietà has remained untold and unknown to the wider Notre Dame audience. 

Ivan Meštrović—a Croatian sculptor famous for his folk and religious art—created the Pietà in 1942. Born in Croatia in 1883, Meštrović left his homeland to live in Rome and Yugoslavia before finally settling in South Bend, Indiana in the 1950s. He served as an art professor and artist-in-residence at Notre Dame for six years, from 1955-1962. Meštrović’s art is featured across campus, and one of his most famous works—the Pietà—resides in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Ivan Meštrović began working on the Pietà in 1941 while imprisoned in Zagreb, Croatia for his steadfast opposition to fascism, initially sketching the Pietà on packing paper with chalk. Meštrović took his inspiration for the sculpture from Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà in Florence, Italy—the famous depiction of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. Like Michelangelo, Meštrović modeled the faces in the sculpture to resemble those close to him: St. Joseph of Arimathea’s features imitate his own, his deceased son is the model for Jesus, his wife the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his daughter inspired the features of St. Mary Magdalene.  

“Indeed, those who are not Christians could see in this sculpture what is universally human: the dead Son, …the grieving mother with the son, the sister sorrowing for her brother, the sorrowful friend for their friend,” Meštrović wrote in a journal. The artist lost his son in Croatia and wanted to revisit grief in light of Our Lord coming down from the Cross. 

Meštrović arranged the figures around the body of Christ in a pyramid that brings focus to Jesus in the center. Meštrović’s connection with his home village becomes apparent in his choice to clothe the characters in traditional Croatian attire. Contrasted with the quiet suffering of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Meštrović’s work showcases the raw, physical sorrow of those holding the just-crucified Jesus. He does this by creating a contrast between the rough-hewn characters with sharp angles and the smooth, lifeless, bare body of Christ. 

“He wanted to make this sculpture a religious image because he began to realize that he had to rely on his faith so much more than he had ever done before in order to endure the suffering that he was experiencing,” said Katie Pelster, Coordinator of Basilica Tours and Hospitality.

The Vatican eventually obtained Meštrović’s release from Croatian prison and sheltered him and his family in Rome. It was during this time in Rome that he completed two versions of his Pietà. The first, a bronze statue, is housed in the Vatican Museums. The marble version resides by the high altar at the heart of Notre Dame’s campus. 

Sandy Redden, a basilica tour guide, told the Rover, “After the war in Europe, no one had any money; they were all just trying to build up their country again. Meštrović needed the money, so he went to be the artist in residence at the University of Syracuse.” 

By this time, Meštrović had already gained massive popularity in Europe, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan allowed him to become the first living artist to present a one-man exhibition in 1947. The Pietà was shown here for eight years until its transfer to Notre Dame. Father Theodore Hesburgh invited Meštrović to Notre Dame to serve as Artist-in-Residence and Distinguished Professor of Art. Hesburgh believed that Meštrović’s religious art would garner greater appreciation among Catholics at Notre Dame than from his Syracuse University audience. Meštrović gave the Pietà to Notre Dame as a gift after its exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it was transported to South Bend from New York on the back of an uncovered flatbed truck in 1955. 

The Pietà is a staggering nine feet tall and weighs seven tons. “The basilica was originally held up with 12-by-12 rough wood beams … this chapel in particular [where the Pieta was located], they put steel beams underneath so that it wouldn’t fall through,” Pelster said. “The wall was also partially demolished to make way for the marble statue, which was too large to be moved into the chapel any other way.” 

Meštrović placed 20 more sculptures and art pieces around the university campus, including Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well in front of O’Shaughnessy Hall and The Last Supper in North Dining Hall. Meštrović’s pieces are characterized by a unification of classical and modern motifs and his personal experiences in the life of faith. Meštrović taught at Notre Dame until his death in 1962. His remains were transported back to his homeland of Yugoslavia and interred in his home village, yet his legacy will be enshrined on campus for generations to come. 

Lydia Poe is a sophomore management and international business major with an Italian minor from Shawnee, KS. Yes, she knows that she’s not in Kansas anymore, but please contact her at lpoe01@saintmarys.edu when the rare tornado touches down in South Bend.

Photo Credit: The Irish Rover

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