Matthew 3:1-2 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
St. John the Baptist (detail), painted wood, 1438, Donatello, c. 1386-1466
The term, “Renaissance man,” (used loosely today when applied to a contemporary person) is in reference to the great achievers of the fifteenth century. They were not only a “jack of all trades,” they also were masters of them all. Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) was such a man. He chiseled stone, cast bronze, modeled clay and stucco, and carved wood as he created a wide range of sculpture including, statues, monuments, and reliefs. This was all done with a high degree of creativity and excellence. Further, his understanding of sculptural space enabled him to be sensitive to how his work would interact in its architectural setting.
The career of Donatello is well known; he worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the first set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral and he studied the ruins of Roman architecture and sculpture with Brunelleschi in Rome. In his work, he helped to bring sculpture out of the Middle Ages by re-establishing it “in the round” (capable of being viewed from all sides). His studies of Roman sculpture led to imbuing a sense of personality and character in the faces and bodies of the figures he sculpted. His St. John the Baptist’s eyebrows are raised, an eye is squinting, and in the boney fingers of his left hand is a partially unrolled scroll showing the beginning of the phrase, “”Ecce Agnus dei” (Behold the Lamb of God). He stands with his right arm raised and his mouth slightly open as though he is about to speak.
The description of John the Baptist in the Books of Mark and Mathew give us an image of a fearless, camel skin-wearing man who lived in the wilderness and ate locust and honey. In art, he is pictured often as somewhat like a wild man with unruly hair, unkempt beard, and an intense facial expression. As the subject of paintings, he is most likely to be at the Jordan River baptizing Christ or in a ghoulish scene with his head on a platter after Salome danced before Herod.
St. John the Baptist, in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, is different from most of Donatello’s familiar work. It is carved in wood and is painted. It is the only sculpture by Donatello in Venice and only his Mary Magdalene, which also is carved in wood, is similar in style. Until it was cleaned in 1973 its date was not known. Under the old paint from a previous restoration, it was discovered Donatello signed and dated it in 1438; much earlier than previously thought. How it came to be in Venice, however, is still uncertain. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence and it has been suggested a wealthy Florentine merchant living outside the city commissioned Donatello to carve the St. John for the church in Venice.
Hovak Najarian © 2013