Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thinking about Flowers, Van Gogh and Vanitas

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

                            "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
                             Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
                             To the last syllable of recorded time,
                             And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
                             The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
                             Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
                             That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
                             And then is heard no more: it is a tale
                             Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
                             Signifying nothing."
                                       
                              William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5.

Certain themes appear and reappear as subjects for artists.  One such is vanitas, Latin for vanity. This subject came up in the discussion of Vincent van Gogh's flower paintings, see ArtWithHillary, June 2015, note 3. 

Vanitas refers to life's brevity and the foolish pursuit of earthly goods and achievements.  All is transient except for religious values.  It was especially true in Holland in the early seventeenth century when the vanitas type of still-life became immensely popular.

Jacques de Gheyn II's Vanitas Still Life in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is credited as the earliest known independent vanitas painting. The moralizing work is filled with symbols concerning the fleeting nature of life and the human folly of worldly possessions.  Although intended to instruct, the vanitas genre gave artists an opportunity to paint a variety of  objects and materials.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

In de Gheyn II's panel, an inscription on the keystone of the stone arch specifies the painting's theme: HVMANA VANA, human vanity.  The arch forms a niche occupied by a skull and bubble - reminders of the certitude of death and life's impermanence.  The bubble contains some smaller images relating to the subject.   There is a leper's rattle and torture wheel.  The former had to be carried by those afflicted so that the non-sick would be alerted to their proximity.  Leprosy, incurable during this time, reminds of the body's gradual deterioration till death. The wheel of torture always killed, but slowly.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

Some have noted other items embedded in the bubble such as a heart. This viewer could not discern anything but the torture wheel and leper's rattle with the naked eye.  Under magnification, however, a rectangular reflection on the sphere's upper left reveals a burning heart pierced by a arrow.  A tiny cross may be distinguished on the top left of the heart.  On the other hand, the cross figuration may just be scratches on the surface of the panel. 

The heart and flame forms a Sacred Heart.  It is a Christian devotional symbol representing Jesus Christ's physical heart, pierced, bleeding and crowned by flames.  The fire indicates the transformative power of divine love - Christ's love and compassion for mankind.  Man's salvation comes about through His suffering.  The heart is usually surrounded by a crown of thorns which is an instrument of Jesus's pain endured for mankind's deliverance.  Its absence here may be the result of abrasion and paint loss.   
  
Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

As for the bubble, the adage,"man is but a bubble" goes back to ancient Roman authors.  Writers in the Renaissance commonly used the comparison.  Erasmus wrote about the saying in his Adagia (II.iii.48): "Man is but a bubble.  The lesson of this proverb is that there is nothing so fragile, so fleeting and so empty as the life of man.  A bubble is that round swollen empty thing which we watch in water as it grows and vanishes in a moment of time."  Thus, it became a fitting symbol for the vanitas topos.*

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

There is more.  The painting is chockablock with symbols.  On either side of the niche is an urn.  A puff of smoke rises from the one on the right; flowers, particularly one tulip, are on the left one.  Again, these are allusions to the shortness of man's existence.  The smoke vanishes quickly.   Cut flowers duly die as  Job (Job 14.2.) describes men "He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down:  he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.” 

The flowers have another connotation.  Cut flowers were expensive in seventeenth-century Holland.  This was especially true of tulips which were introduced to Europe from Turkey in the sixteenth century. Tulips were quite different from European flowers and became exceedingly popular.  They were status symbols for the rich and prosperous Dutch burghers.  Trading in bulb futures reached ridiculous heights in the early seventeenth century.  This tulip mania speculation collapsed in 1637.  The term tulip mania has become a metaphor for any economic bubble where asset values diverge considerably from intrinsic values. When de Gheyn painted his Vanitas, tulips were still an obsession of the rich - symbolic of man's inanity in seeking worldly possessions. Think about the current craze for women's designer handbags and the compulsive bidding up of certain ones. Be that as it may, de Gheyn II's didactic imagery continues.  The coins and Dutch medals refer to temporal accomplishments and wealth accumulation. The sculptural figures in the arch's spandrels depict the Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.  Known as the laughing and crying philosophers, they point down at the sphere.  One laughs at and one weeps at mankind's foibles. 

More could be said but the above should give readers an idea about meanings in artworks that may be lost to contemporary viewers.  Don't fail to note that what was obvious to seventeenth-century viewers may not be clear to us today.  

As for the last words of this post, take a look at one artist's thoughts on the de Gheyn II work.

2015, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Go visit the painting in the museum's Gallery 635.  

*This month, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) televised Blue Lightning, an episode of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) crime series, "Shetland."  During the two-part story, an autopsy is performed on what turns out to be a murder victim.  While performing the autopsy, the medical examiner remarks to the police official that the deceased "....was on the bubble."  The observer was perplexed.  She, the medical examiner, explains that the expression is American and is used when there is a sudden, unexpected death in an auto racing crash. In such a situation, the unfortunate driver is said to be a person whose "bubble has burst."  The fictitious examiner's explication referring to a car crash was new to this writer who was more interested in the continued survival of "bubble" as a trope for life's precariousness, reminding death can happen unexpectedly, at any time.

1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), Manhattan
Hours:
Open 7 Days a Week
Sunday–Thursday: 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1,
and the first Monday in May

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Van Gogh's Saint-Rémy Flowers

Living Memento Mori 

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Irises, 1890,
oil on canvas, 36 1⁄2 x 29 1/8 in. (92.7 cm x 73.9 cm)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For the first time in 125 years, four Vincent van Gogh paintings are united in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, Van Gogh: Irises and Roses. Two depict bouquets of irises and two of roses.  All share the same horizon line and appear as a series of pairs. Upright and horizontal orientations are shared by each floral type.  They are a study of contrasts:  vertical and horizontal formats, long and rounded bloom shapes and complementary (opposite) colors.  

The exhibit highlights an aspect of art often overlooked.  That is, over time artworks may change. Specifically, in the case of these works, a pigment used by van Gogh has faded imparting a major change in the painting's coloration. 


  Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Irises, 1890,
0il on canvas29 x 36 1/4 in. (73.7 x 92.1 cm)
Gift of Adele R. Levy, 1958 
58.18
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The four large flower paintings were completed in 1890 at the end of the artist's stay at an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France.  Van Gogh had taken a roll of canvas and cut it into four equal rectangular pieces.  As was his practice, he set about painting bunches of  flowers.  These were irises and roses which he had gathered in the asylum's gardens.  

Still lifes, especially floral arrangements, were a way for van Gogh to investigate color theory.* He used flowers for intense study of color relationships, particularly contrasts and harmonies using complementary colors.  Complementary colors are opposite colors on the color wheel.  When painted side by side, such as violet against yellow or red and green, they produce the most intense contrasts.  On the other hand, colors next to each other on the color wheel yield harmonious effects.  

On May 11, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: 

"At the moment ... I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush. I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises, one lot against a pink background in which the effect is harmonious and soft through the combination of greens, pinks, violets. On the contrary, the other violet bouquet (ranging up to pure carmine and Prussian blue) standing out against a striking lemon yellow background with other yellow tones in the vase and the base on which it rests is an effect of terribly disparate complementaries that reinforce each other by their opposition."
(Vincent van Gogh The Letters, 870)

Two days later in another letter to Theo, he added:

"I’ve also just finished a canvas of pink roses against yellow-green background in a green vase....I tell you, as regards work, my mind feels absolutely serene and the brushstrokes come to me and follow each other very logically."
(Vincent van Gogh The Letters, 872)

Van Gogh would be discharged from the asylum the following Sunday on May 16.  The same day he left for Paris.  The paintings had been finished by then.  

The artist had worked with a brilliant scarlet pigment called geranium lake.  The color was highly light sensitive.  Although well-informed about pigments and their properties, the lake red faded more quickly than van Gogh had expected.  Violets (a mix of blue and red pigment) became blue; pinks (a mix of white and red pigment) turned white.  

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Roses, 1890,
oil on canvas, 27 15/16 x 35 7/16 in. (71 x 90 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 
Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of  W.  Averell Harriman
1991.67.1
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The red which endowed the roses with their pink color disappeared. The blossoms turned white.  Bright red rose buds took on a flesh-like tone. Violet irises became blue.  Pink backgrounds white.  The compositional contrasts of  pinks against greens and violets against yellows no longer exist.  A Fauvist look had been tamed.** 

Viewers can see the "before and now" look of the paintings as well as learn about the artist's working methods in two short videos on the wall opposite the actual works.  Technical analysis has enabled the digital recreation of the images.  

Another aspect of the paintings should not be ignored.  The flowers had been in full bloom, at their peak of beauty, when van Gogh started to paint.  He had to work quickly to capture their glory.  Nature, however, was winning out.  Iris blossoms started to shrivel; roses begun to droop and lose their petals. 


Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Roses1890,
oil on canvas, 36 5/8 x 29 1/8 in. (93 x 74 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, 
Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, 
Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002
1993.400.5
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Though the canvases pulsate with pleasure through their compositional design, impactful brushstrokes and still lush colors, they impart a slight disturbance. Thoughts go to seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings which were symbolic of nature's fleeting earthly pleasures.**With this tradition in mind, the van Gogh series can be seen as a memento mori - a reminder of life's transience and death. Death is present amidst life.  The transitory nature of pigments is recalled.  Paintings change.  Pleasure and unease co-exist.  Van Gogh died just over two months after these works were completed.

Although colors have dimmed, the visual delights of van Gogh's large bouquets remain abundant.  Such is van Gogh's genius.  See the show.


Van Gogh:  Irises and Roses
May 12, 2015 - August 16, 2015
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), Manhattan
Hours:
Open 7 Days a Week
Sunday–Thursday: 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1,
and the first Monday in May
____________________
Notes:
*Van Gogh took great interest in the color theories of Charles Blanc who published works investigating color relationships such as how certain colors are reinforced when placed next to each other.  Blanc's writings were well-known among nineteenth-century artists and highly influential.


A color star developed by Charles Blanc in 1867
Photo:  Wikipedia Commons Web site

For a concise introduction to color theory and the color wheel see TEWM The Electric Matrix of Digital Technology.

**For Fauvism examples, step outside the exhibition gallery (Gallery 955), make a  left (Gallery 962) to see House behind Trees, 1906-7, by Georges Braque (1882 - 1963) and Olive Trees at Collioure, 1905 (?), by Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954).  Both works explore van Gogh's intended color configurations.  Braque's and Matisse's pinks, greens, yellows, blues and reds are still vibrant.

***For an example, see Jacob Vosmaer's A Vase with Flowers in the museum's gallery 635.

Jacob Vosmaer (c. 1584 - 1641), A Vase with Flowers,
c. 1613, oil on wood, 33 1/2 x 24 5/8 in. (85.1 x 62.5 cm),
Photo:  ARTstor 

The vanitas theme is derived from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  Symbolic imagery include wilting flowers (death); butterflies (transformation); cracking parapets (time's destructive nature); and lizards (changeability).  Memento mori are versions of the vanitas theme with emphasis on mortality.   Keep in mind,  the moral aspects of these works gave artists an excuse to paint some beautiful, sensuous pictures of the life they saw around them.  
____________________
y

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Paths to Prayer II:

Italian Renaissance Sculpture 
From Florence Cathedral*
  
Nanni di Banco (ca. 1380/85–1421) or 
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466) (?),
Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows), ca. 1407–9, marble
18 7⁄8 × 26 × 4 3⁄4 in. (48 × 66 × 12 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/280
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone 

More than half the sculpture on display at the Museum of Biblical Art's (MOBIA) exhibition, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, are small in scale. Their modest size offers particular enjoyment.  Visitors are able to take in the totality of these works at close range.  Most are unobstructed by glass. Viewing details is easy.  A good example is the marble relief Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows) variously attributed to Donatello or Nanni di Banco but now  largely accepted as an early Donatello. Designed for the Florence cathedral's northeast entrance as the keystone for the upper register arch, this beautifully rendered Christ figure is the embodiment of pathos.  He represents the "man of sorrows" from the Old Testament's Book of Isaiah, 53.3, which contains the prophetic description of the coming Messiah: "He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief...."  The sculpture portrays Christ just after resurrection, neither dead nor alive. 


Luca della Robbia ((1399/1400–1482)
Dialectic (Plato and Aristotle?), 1437–39,
marble, 32 7⁄8 × 27 1⁄8 × 5 in. (83.5 × 69 × 13 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/437
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

While many of the pieces displayed evoke sadness or reverence, those of Luca della Robbia charm.  In 1437, the artist was commissioned to create five marble hexagonal panels for the lower level of the cathedral's bell tower.  These would complete a cycle portraying the activities of man which was begun in the mid-fourteenth century.  

Luca was a well-known sculptor, considered by contemporaries on the level of Donatello and Brunelleschi.  Today, he is better known for his polychrome enameled terra-cotta reliefs than his marble or bronze sculptures.  The latter works, however, are equally important.  The exhibition includes three of the artist's marble panels destined for the bell tower.  They  illustrate the liberal arts, pursuits related to the intellect.  

The artist's Dialectic shows two classically garbed men engaged in a spirited discussion.  Both open-mouthed figures gesticulate with animation. The younger man points to a section in an open book as if to support his argument while the older gentleman' s gesture underlines his point. The two have been identified as Aristotle and Plato whose writings were studied in fifteenth-century Florence.  The scene's realistic actions, brings to mind present day Florence where you may witness such disputations. For the Florentines still love to enter into a good debate.  

In the excellent exhibition catalogue, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Director of Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and one of the two curators of the exhibition, draws attention to the idea that church decorations, whether sculpture, painting, stained glass or whatever medium, should be viewed in a religious context.  The imagery foremost was created as an expression of faith, intended to inspire faith.  In the case of the bell tower reliefs, he proposes that the iconographic program refers to the writings of a Florentine Dominican theologian active in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century.  Specifically, the scenes relate to the text which describes the church as bringing new life to human knowledge activities and the role these activities have in disclosing Christ's perfection.  Interpretations aside, Luca's naturalism captivates.


Installation View, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence CathedralMuseum of Biblical Art, New York,  
left to right, attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), 
model (two vitrines) for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420–52, wood
and model (one vitrine) of the Lantern for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, 
15th or 16th century, wood (elm and walnut), wax, and plaster
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/493 and 485.
Photo:  Hillary Ganton  

Not to be forgotten is the architectural masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi:  the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church of Florence.   Six hundred years after its creation, the dome still dominates the city.  Until St. Peter's in Rome was built, Brunelleschi's construction was the highest dome ever made.  


Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Photo:  TesoroTreaures Web site     

Traditionally, domes were built using wooden scaffolding which would support the structure as it went up.  The cathedral's space was just too big.  The dome had to cover a width of approximately 150 feet - almost as big as the ancient Pantheon built around 129 A.D.  Furthermore, the dome had to start about 180 feet above the ground.  There was just not enough wood around to make this method feasible.  Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious plan to solve the problem.  He would create a double shell - one dome within another - made with masonry that locked in place as each layer was completed.  The dome's downward and outward pressure would be counter-balanced by stone and wood chains secured with iron.  To accomplish the task, Brunelleschi invented new types of lifting mechanisms as well as innovative means to obtain the needed supplies down the city's Arno River.  At the time, there was much doubt his dome would hold up.  Its success put all criticism to rest.

Attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446),
Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420–52, wood, 
dome: 39 3⁄8 × 27 ½ in. (100 × 70 cm);
apses: 21 5⁄8 × 24 ¾ × 13 ¾ in. each (55 × 63 × 35 cm each)**
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/493
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

The authorship and dating of the two models in the exhibition**,  the dome's model and the model of its lantern, remain debatable.  They were made to give a more complete idea of how the structure would look.  However, the originally polychrome exterior decorations were lost during their restorations carried out after the disastrous flooding of the Arno in 1966.  Today, they look bare but still give viewers an idea of Brunelleschi's genius and working procedures.   He would create models to explain particular construction details that workers could follow.  To maintain control, Brunelleschi made sure not all was revealed in these mock-ups. 

The Florence cathedral was consecrated on March 25, 1436 some sixteen years after it was begun.  For this occasion, Guillaume Dufay, the most important composer in Europe during the mid-fifteenth century, wrote his celebrated motet, Nuper rosarum flores.  The music's  verses describe the church as magnificent and "...a temple of great ingenuity...." Enjoy the music and, above all, do not miss the MOBIA's show. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397 - 1474) - Nuper rosarum flores


Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  
Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral
February 20 - June 14, 2015
1865 Broadway at 61st Street, Manhattan
Tuesdays  - Sundays 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays  

*Please note:  this is the second part of a two-part blog post.  For part I see ArtWithHillary April 2015.
**In the exhibition installation, the model for the dome and the model for the apses are in separate vitrines.  

Postscript:  Sadly, the Museum of Biblical Art will close on June 30, 2015.  The museum was unable to secure the needed funding to continue.  Over its ten years of existence, MOBIA has presented critically acclaimed exhibitions contributing to New York City's cultural and intellectual life.  The current presentation, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, assures the museum will go out on a high note.

                                                      

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Paths to Prayer I:

Italian Renaissance Sculpture 
From Florence Cathedral
  
Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio (active 1382–1418)
Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation (detail), late 14th century,
marble, 56 3/4 x 17 1/4 x 11 7/8 in. (144 x 44 x 30 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/276
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone       

The great art historian Erwin Panofsky described the difference between short lived renascences that occurred during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that occurred in Italy from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century.  Panofsky wrote, "The Middle Ages had left antiquity unburied....The Renaissance stood weeping at its grave and tried to resurrect its soul.  And in one fatally auspicious moment it succeeded."*  

The realization of these remarks can be seen in the twenty-three sculptures on view at the Museum of Biblical Art's (MOBIA) exhibition, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.  These works rooted in antiquity inspired faith and prayer.  Indeed, they were created with this in mind.  They were paths to prayerfulness.  As this exhibit makes apparent, the seemingly opposing mix of pagan world forms and Christian theology yielded some of the most moving imagery in the history of art.  


Installation View, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence CathedralMuseum of Biblical Art, New York, Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation on left, Virgin Mary of the Annunciation on right, attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio (active 1382–1418), late 14th century, marble
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/276 and 277.
Photo:  Hillary Ganton    
  
Most of the exhibition's sculptures have never before left Florence. After their return, they will probably never travel again.  This unprecedented loan was made possible by the closing of the Florence Cathedral’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo while undergoing expansion and renovation.  

Setting the stage:  the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is Florence's main church.  Begun in the 13th century, the cathedral developed by the early 15th century into the largest enclosed space in the world.  The edifice was crowned by an enormous masonry dome, an engineering achievement devised by the illustrious architect, engineer and artist Filippo Brunelleschi.  The cathedral, its baptistry and bell tower, called the campanile, make up the building complex known as the Duomo.  The decoration of these buildings, both interior and exterior, occupied the wealthy, commercial city of Florence for several hundred years.  

The Duomo was not just a source of civic pride but expressed Florentine's profound religious sense. With money from wool production and international banking, the city had the resources to hire the best artists of the day to create in the most modern style works that would glorify God.  The results were revolutionary artworks in marble, bronze, painting, stained glass and more.  A glimpse of this accomplishment is on view in the MOBIA show beginning with the Annunciation, a sculptural ensemble attributed to Giovanni d'Ambrogio.   The work exemplifies the transition from the late Gothic to the early Renaissance style of art.  Under elegant drapery folds of toga-like garments, the figures sway in the rhythmic earlier Gothic manner but their heads are purely classical like Roman portraits.  

The exhibit quickly moves along into the brilliance of the Renaissance when mind and motion are coordinated in one form.  Life-like figures seem capable of speech.

The star of the show is without doubt Donatello, the great Renaissance sculptor.  New York has none of his works.  In fact, in the United States there is only one Donatello:  a small relief in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.  Thus, to see three of Donatello's major sculptures along with seven others wholly or partially attributed to him is a special treat.  
  
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466),
St. John the Evangelist1408–15, marble,
831⁄2 × 353⁄4 × 241⁄2 in. (212 × 91 × 62 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/113
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone       

The St. John the Evangelist was Donatello's first large scale commission.   The artist took into account the placement of the figure: a niche about ten feet above ground, approximately four plus feet above the head of an average viewer, on the right side of the main entrance of the Florence Cathedral.  When seen at eye level, St. John's torso appears elongated and his thighs unnaturally downward sloping. Viewed from below, the figure seems anatomically correct.  The evangelist holds a book in his left hand, perhaps the Gospel of John or some other religious text.   His right hand, resting on his right thigh, probably had held a writing implement, likely a metal pen.  He looks out suggesting contemplation.  He may be ruminating on something already written or thinking of new ideas.  Michelangelo (1475 - 1564) who lived in Florence would have passed this statue on many occasions.**  Some 100 years after its creation, the St. John would be the inspiration for Michelangelo's Moses on Pope Julius II's tomb.


Nanni di Banco ( (ca. 1380/85–1421),  St. Luke the Evangelist, 1408–13, 
marble,  81 ½ × 35 7⁄8 × 24 7⁄8 in.  (207 × 91 × 63 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/112
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone       

Paired with the St. John is Nanni di Banco's St. Luke the Evangelist. The work originally flanked the left side of the cathedral's main portal in the niche opposite St. John's.  While St. John seems lost in thought, St. Luke appears to look down to his left at those who pass by perhaps about to enter the cathedral.  An open book resting on his left thigh might indicate he has been interrupted by them while reading.  Like St. John, the full effect of Luke's pose only becomes apparent when the statue is confronted from below.

Installation View, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence CathedralMuseum of Biblical Art, New York, 
far right Donatello's St. John the Evangelist
second from far right Nanni di Banco's St. Luke the Evangelist
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. nos. 2005/113 and 112.
Photo:     Hyperallergic.com Web site


The exhibit's installation has done well by placing the two Evangelists next to one another each on pedestals about six feet from the ground - four feet short of their first location.  The sight is awe inspiring.  Both seated figures are approximately seven feet tall and weigh about 1,600 pounds.

Installation View, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence CathedralMuseum of Biblical Art, New York, 
on left Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466)
Prophet (possibly Habakkuk), known as the Zuccone, 1435–36, marble
76 3⁄4 × 21 1⁄4 × 15 in. (195 × 54 × 38 cm);
on right Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466) 
and Nanni di Bartolo, known as Rosso (active 1419–51)
Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac), 1421, marble,
74 × 22 × 17 3⁄4 in. (188 × 56 × 45 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. nos. 2005/374 and 366.
Photo:     Hyperallergic.com Web site

Two other monumental pairings are stand-outs: Donatello's Prophet known as the Zuccone (pumpkin head or bald head) and Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac) by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo.  Both sculptures were made for niches on the Florence Cathedral's bell tower, the campanile. The earlier work, the Abraham and Isaac group, was carved for the upper row, east side of the tower.  It was the only narrative sculpture on the edifice and the first Renaissance sculpture of two figures carved from the same marble block.  


Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466) 
and Nanni di Bartolo, known as Rosso (active 1419–51),
Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac), 1421,
marble, 74 × 22 × 17 3⁄4 in. (188 × 56 × 45 cm) 
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/366
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone       

As usual with Donatello, adjustments were made in the figures's anatomies so when viewed from the low vantage point, the figural proportions appear natural. Most scholars today attribute the majority of the work to Donatello. The sculpture renders the moment when Abraham begins to realize that he would not have to sacrifice his son to prove his faith in God.  He has heard the unseen angel's order and looks up.  His open-eyed, closed-mouth expression seems to denote a moment of comprehension.  


Abraham's right hand holds the knife that would have been the instrument of slaughter.   His grip has just begun to slacken.  Pressure of blade against skin has relaxed.  The knife's sharp edge has been turned away from the youth's neck.  The patriarch's left hand still holds back his son's hair readying the boy for the kill.  The nude youth's head turns downward and away from the father.   Yet, his body is almost nestled within his parent's powerful legs as if to indicate the source of his life.  Details are realistic:  Abraham's right sleeve is rolled up for the intent work, sacrificial wood is piled under his right leg, materials are differentiated - hair, beard, cloth, wood and skin are portrayed with consummate skill. 

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466),
Prophet (possibly Habakkuk), known as the Zuccone, 1435–36, marble,
76 3⁄4 × 21 1⁄4 × 15 in. (195 × 54 × 38 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/374
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone     

The Prophet is a masterwork of Donatello's mature style.  It was made for the third story, north side of the bell tower.  The work is an intensely realistic portrayal.  One can easily assume it depicts a specific person.  Immediately acclaimed and much valued, the Zuccone was moved to a more visible location on the campanile's west side some thirty years after its original placement.  Archival documents suggest the statue may represent the prophet Habakkuk whose writings stressed faith in God's justice.   Be that as it may, Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574), painter, architect, historian and writer, recorded that Donatello considered the work his masterpiece and, at times while the statue was still in  his studio, commanded it to speak.  

More to come.

*Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance And Renascences In Western Art (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969), 113.

**The cathedral's main facade statues were removed in 1587 and placed in the cathedral's east tribune.  They entered the Duomo Museum in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  
Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral
February 20 - June 14, 2015
1865 Broadway at 61st Street, Manhattan
Tuesday - Sundas 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays