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