Door of the Apostles | Art for Proper 22

‘The apostles said to the Lord’ Luke 17:5

Door of the Apostles
DONATELLO
(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)
Door of the Apostles 1440-43
Bronze, 235 x 109 cm
Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo, Florence
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Doors of the Apostles, bronze, 1440-43, Donatello, c. 1386-1466

The Basilica di San Lorenzo (Basilica of St. Lawrence) was consecrated in AD 393 and played a major role in the history of Florence, Italy. It was the city’s cathedral for three hundred years and during the fifteenth century it was the parish church of the wealthy Medici family. Like many of Italy’s old churches, San Lorenzo underwent architectural modifications and additions throughout its years. In 1419, a proposal was made to make changes to the eleventh century Romanesque building. Giovanni de’Medici offered to pay the cost and Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the most influential artists of the early Renaissance, was selected to design the sacristy. His impressive plan won him a commission to redesign the entire church. He completed plans for it but because of delays only the sacristy (now called the “Old Sacristy”) was completed in his lifetime. Brunelleschi’s friend, Donatello, another of the most influential artists of this period was commissioned to design the sacristy’s bronze doors.

As a young man, Donatello gained valuable experience in modeling clay and casting bronze while he apprenticed with Lorenzo Ghiberti at the time the first set of doors were being made for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti’s format was to use relief panels to depict scenes from the Bible and his figures were depicted in landscape and architectural settings. For the “Doors of the Apostles” at San Lorenzo, Donatello also used figures in relief but elected to place only two apostles in each of the ten panels and to use no background. Information about Donatello’s intent is lacking but it is reasonable to assume the two apostles in each panel are talking about Christ’s teachings or events that have taken place in their time together. Some seem to be praying but the facial expressions, postures, and gestures of others indicate they are engaged in serious discussions or even in heated arguments. At the time the doors were made, the depiction of this human side of the apostles caused controversy.

Today, Donatello’s “Doors of the Apostles” are overshadowed by the fame of Ghiberti’s doors which are nearby and called “The Doors of Paradise.” The Old Sacristy doors at San Lorenzo do not have a broad range of subject matter and are not located at the Baptistery of the largest and best known cathedral in Florence; instead the doors are at a quiet place – a sacristy – where two members of the Medici family are buried.

Although the construction of the Basilica di San Lorenzo was mostly completed by the end of the fifteenth century, one prominent feature – the façade – remains in its rough unfinished condition even today. In the early fifteenth century, Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to design the façade. Michelangelo designed it and even made a wooden model of it but it was not built. His design for the inside of the façade (looking back from the nave), however, was completed.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Prophet Jeremiah | Art for Proper 16C

Prophet Jeremiah
DONATELLO
b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze
Prophet Jeremiah
1423-26
Marble, height 191 cm
 Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Prophet Jeremiah, marble, 1423-26, Donatello, c.1386-1466

In the fifteenth century great changes were underway in Italy and Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) played a major role in developments that took place in sculpture.  Throughout the Romanesque and Gothic periods, sculpture tended to be an adjunct to architecture; it was stylized and sometimes column-like.  Often it was in the form of important saints and notable church figures lined in rows at the entrances of cathedrals or placed in niches built into interior or exterior walls.  Much of it was in relief and seemed incapable of escaping from a wall or column.  Even when it was free standing (not in relief) it was placed usually in a space that was surrounded closely and it was seldom created to be seen “in the round.”  While liberating sculpture from its subordinate role in architecture, Donatello became the most celebrated sculptor of the Early Renaissance and an influence on almost all sculpture that followed.

At age seventeen Donatello worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti during the time the first set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral was being conceived.  After a short time in the studio of Ghiberti, he went to Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi to “treasure hunt.” Their treasure was the information they gleaned from the pieces of sculpture and architecture found among the ruins of Roman buildings.  This visit to Rome affected the future work of both men.  Donatello departed from his early training in stylized late Gothic sculpture and Brunelleschi went on to discover linear perspective and to build the magnificent dome of Florence Cathedral (known as Il Duomo).

In Greek sculpture the gods and goddesses were given idealized proportions; their bodies and faces were not those of real people.  The Romans also made sculpture depicting their gods but they carved portraits of their leaders as well.  These portraits depicted the sitter’s individual characteristics and expressions.  When Donatello left Gothic stylistic elements, he did not follow the Greek model of ideal proportions.  Instead, like Roman portraits, he brought a sense of realism and naturalism into his work.  This naturalism is evidenced in two marble figures in adjacent niches carved for the BellTower (designed by Giotto) of Florence Cathedral.

The two prophets – Jeremiah and a bald figure dubbed “Zuccone” (pumpkin head) and believed to be Habakkuk – each stand with loose informal toga-like wraps hanging from their shoulders.  Both are beardless and, in their characteristics, are like Roman orators; not like Greek gods.  The Zuccone is in a relaxed stance but rather
undignified with parted lips and almost quizzical expression.  Jeremiah is in a similar stance but has a full head of hair and a face that carries a sense of strength.  His firm jaw and tight lips convey seriousness and inner thoughts.  Yet his large eyes seem to express sympathy, gentleness, and perhaps even sorrow.  Donatello portrays Jeremiah as a real person; a human with whom we can identify, not as an impersonal idealized figure or as a bearded old prophet of long ago.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

St John the Baptist | Art for A Advent 2

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.”

St John the Baptist (detail)
DONATELLO
(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)
St John the Baptist (detail)
1438
Painted wood
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
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St John the Baptist

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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