Donatello and the Old Sacristy in the San Lorenzo

The San Lorenzo: the Old Sacristy

First we walk to the left transept where the entrance door to the Old Sacristy is. On the days of architecture we had already seen this space (click here for the architecture of the Old Sacristy and Click here for an overview San Lorenzo architecture and sculpture.) which was built by Brunelleschi, but now we are here for the decorations of stucco and the two bronze doors: the work of Donatello.127

Old Sacristy
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Donatello Old Sacristy in the San Lorenzo

 

The Old Sacristy: Donatello’s eight tondi and two bronze doors

The Old Sacristy was commissioned by Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici, the father of Cosimo the Elder, and is dedicated to John the Baptist. Under the dome there are eight tondi of pietra serena: one in the lunette on each wall and one in each pensive.

Brunelleschi  domes en Donatello’s tondos
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Brunelleschi  domes Donatello tondos Old Sacristy San Lorenzo

After the construction work by the architect Brunelleschi, the oculi were empty. This was allegedly the intention. The idea to decorate came later. This is nonsense according to Pope-Hennessy128 Like the Pazzi chapel that was built later, the decoration was an essential part of the chapel and planned from the beginning.

In his biography about Brunelleschi, Manetti describes a dispute between Brunelleschi and Donatello. When Donatello receives the order for the decorations and the two bronze doors with the recess above it, he sets to work without consulting his friend Filippo Brunelleschi. According to Manetti, the work lacked the excellent forms of Brunelleschi who did not approve the reliefs of Donatello. When Donatello understood Filippo’s disapproval, he became very spiked and disparaging about the work of the architect of the Old Sacristy. Donatello kept spreading his derogatory remarks about Brunelleschi. The architect could not just let that slide, and so Brunelleschi composed some sonnets -some of them are now in circulation- to let the world know that he was not responsible for the porticus or the bronze doors or anything else on the walls between the corner pilasters.’129

Brunelleschi’s complaint is understandable, especially if you look at the decorations above the two bronze doors. The colours, the round arch, the aediculas around bronze doors do not match Brunelleschi’s architecture. Pope-Hennessy even speaks of clumsy aedicas.130 The stucco work and the colours emphasise the walls. This is something Brunelleschi must have been disgusted about. As we have already seen on the days of architecture, Brunelleschi emphasized the supporting parts by using blue-grey pietra serena. The walls, on the other hand, had to remain white. This way, the walls dissolve as it were, or in other words, matter is deprived of its essential character.

Brunelleschi Old Sacristy San Lorenzo


The eight medallions or tondi: four stories about John and four about the evangelists

The medallions with the stories of the apostle John

The problem with the narrative tondi in the pendants is that they are placed from the floor at a height of twelve meters and on a concave wall surface at that. This probably explains the use of colour. With this Donatello hoped to make the tondi more readable. The four large tondi are two meters in diameter. What is great about the Old Sacristy is that despite these two handicaps, the medallions still form a unity and are very convincing perspectively. Yet, and you will notice that when you stand in the Old Sacristy, many details cannot be clearly seen without binoculars. At the second half of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, at a height of twenty metres, all details are clearly visible. However, Michelangelo also had hundreds of meters of surface at his disposal and not a circle with a diameter of only a few meters.

The surface of the tondi was prepared for painting with a mixture of plaster and stone dust. This formed the primer for the colours and the figures were modelled on this. Large parts of the stucco were not pigmented. The stucco was applied damp with the support of a large number of nails, some of which you can still see, such as at the cooking pot in which poor John stands. The plaster was often applied in small parts and then worked with the hands, some fingerprints are still visible. After drying, the plasterwork is worked with a tool to make the figures and details stand out better.

There are many pictures of the life of John the Evangelist, but one was considered superior in Florence: the one by Giotto in the Peruzzi Chapel (Santa Croce). At Web Gallery of Art you can see these frescoes about John by Giotto. On the right wall, Giotto painted three scenes from the life of John: above the evangelist at Patmos, in the middle the Resurrection of Drusiana and below the Ascension of John. As there were four tondi, Donatello needed a fourth scene. This will be the martyrdom of John outside the Latin Gate: a story from the Legend of Aurea by Jacobus the Voragine.131

John and his dream on Patmos

In this tondo you see John as he sleeps with a book and an inkwell next to him. Above him is the vision: God and the angels blowing the winds. The Lord holds a crescent in His Hand. A woman and a child are threatened by the dragon that comes flying in. Below, left behind the trees, four angels are blowing the winds. The head of John is turned backwards as if it were an illustration of what can be read in Revelation 1:10-11:

‘[…] and I heard a loud voice behind me, like a trumpet, saying: That which ye see, write it in a book, and send it to the seven churches […] ’
Donatello ‘John’s dream’ detail large size
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Donatello John's dream tondo Old sacristy San Lorenzo

Christ is not represented frontally by Donatello as it was in Giotto’s case. By using a clear horizon for a perspectively correct representation of all narrative scenes, the round form is essentially rendered void. Depth is suggested by the trees that decrease in size on the left side as they are placed further in the background. This is the first time that a round shape shows the correct effect of perspective. Ghiberti used a more obvious form for the Paradise Gate: a square that is significantly wider than high, in other words, a horizontal format.

Resurrection of Drusiana

After Patmos, John returned to Ephesus after Domitian’s revocation of the death sentence. According to the Legend of Aurea, the crowd called out to him: Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. When he entered the city, he saw a procession with the remains of a woman named Drusiana, who had long been his most devoted friend.

 Donatello ‘Resurrection of Drusiana’ and a detail big size
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Donatello tondo 'resurrection of Drusiana' old sacristy San Lorenzo

In Giotto’s fresco in the Peruzzi chapel, the stretcher is in the middle of and parallel to the image plane. To the right is a group that is mourning and to the left is John with a number of people praying on their knees near him.

Giotto ‘Resurrection of Drusiana’  Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce
Giotto resurrection of Drusiana Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

Donatello’s tondo is quite different. The first impression is one of a geometric composition in which the space is clearly divided by horizontals and verticals. The reactions to the miraculous resurrection of Drusiana can be seen in the different gestures and facial expressions of those present. The stretcher is placed diagonally and centrally in the image plane. John has raised up his right arm, a blessing gesture, and near him are two kneeling and begging figures. In the foreground, to the right ,a boy runs away to trump the big news he has just seen. The two figures in the middle of the foreground seem to comment on the miracle because of their gestures. Pope-Hennessy sees this work as one of the highlights of Donatello’s narrative art: the superlative comes when the evangelist is taken up into heaven.132

The torture in boiling oil and the ascension of John

In the next scene John is standing just outside the gates of Latina in a cauldron with oil. At the bottom and parallel to the image plane, soldiers climb a staircase. This motif has clearly impressed the painter Ghirlandaio. He also used such a staircase in one of his frescoes in the Sassetti chapel as we will see on the days of painting.

Donatello ‘The torture in boiling oil’ and a detail big size
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Donatello tondo 'The torture in boiling oil' old sacristy San Lorenzo

The ascension to heaven of John as painted by Giotto was widely admired. As a young boy and artist in training, Michelangelo made another drawing of this. According to Voragine, John was ninety-nine years old and the Lord called: ‘Come to me, my beloved one, for the time has come for you to sit at my table with your brothers.’ John stood up to respond to this call. But Jesus said: ‘No, you cannot come to me on Sunday.’ The next day a crowd had gathered in the church. John had dug his grave next to the altar and saw that the earth was being brought out by some of those present. He stood in the grave, raised his hands to the heaven and spoke: ‘You invited me to the table, thank you for inviting me.’ After this prayer, John is surrounded by a blinding light. When the light stopped, John had disappeared and the grave was filled with manna. It is said that the manna is still coming from the grave as if it were a rich and inexhaustible source.

Giotto ‘The ascension to heaven of John’ Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce
Giotto 'The ascension to heaven of John' Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

This tondo also has a sleek geometric frame. Below the centre, a pilaster diverts the eye to John who rises to heaven. The grave, which Giotto does paint, is excluded by Donatello. Considering the strong bottom view, this is not possible either. The man on the far right is probably the father of Cosimo the Elder, Giovanni di Bicci, or Cosimo himself.133

The ascension to heaven of John
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Donatello 'The ascension to heaven of John' tondo Old Sacristy San Lorenzo

The special perspective gives the dramatic event an extra charge. You look up as if you are just a tiny worm, there is no foreground. Janson even cites the twentieth-century artist, the Chirico, who used his strange perspectives to evoke certain emotions in the viewer.134 The story of John in the Legend of Aurea ends with the ascent of John and Christ who welcomes him. Donatello has placed this miraculous event at the very top of the picture plane, it occupies only one fifth of the whole. The rest, four fifths, is filled with the astonished reactions of the spectators and the complex architecture of this Ascension. Such a composition goes against all usual conventions.

Giotto and Donatello ‘Ascension’ 
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Giotto Hemelvaart Johannes

The narrative scenes are not only an experiment in perspective, but above all a means to convey a story credibly to the viewer. Just like Masaccio had already done this successfully in the Brancacci chapel, Donatello also succeeds miraculously.

The apostles in the lunettes

The four tondi in the lunettes with the apostles have the advantage that the wall is flat and not concave as with the pendants.

Brunelleschi Old Sacristy San Lorenzo dome
Brunelleschi old sacristy San Lorenzo dome

Donatello moves away from the usual way in which the apostles were represented in Florence. An example of the common way of depicting can be seen at the first few doors that Ghiberti had made for the Baptistery. Apostles were not depicted as real individuals, but rather as standard types. Thus Ghiberti depicted his apostle John as an old meditative man with a beard and largely bald.

Ghiberti ‘Apostle Johan’ Baptistery door north side
Ghiberti  'Apostle John' Baptistery door north side

Donatello, however, gave his apostles individual traits. Thus, the skinny Matthew gets powerful features and a short beard and so he looks very different from the frontally depicted Matthew by Ghiberti. According to Pope-Hennessy, the source for this new approach to Donatello can be found in Byzantine manuscripts.135 Presumably, advisors of Cosimo de Elder pointed Donatello to Byzantine miniatures.

Donatello ‘Luke’  big size
Donatello Luke tondo old sacristy San Lorenzo

Ghiberti’s compositions are strongly vertical, Donatello’s compositions are horizontal, just like his narrative tondos. The chairs and desks are placed on horizontal floors that extend over the entire image plane. Such compositions can also be found in Byzantine manuscripts, as well as the emphasis on all kinds of details such as the chair or the lectern. Many details such as the vase or the seat can be traced back to Roman motifs.

The recesses above the two bronze doors in the Old Sacristy

Brunelleschi made the two arches above the current doors to the right and left of the altar room. Only later were these open passages given doors with recesses above them. After the tondos, Donatello made the two bronze doors and the mouldings around the doors. The aediculas around the bronze doors were probably made by Michelozzo.136

Old Sacristy
ancient sacristy San Lorenzo Florence

Above the left door, the door of the martyrs, we can see St. Stephen, with the stone on his forehead, and St. Lawrence, with the grid on which he was burned. Above the right door, the door of the apostles, the saints Cosmas and Damian are depicted. The last two were the patron saints of the Medici. Lawrence looks at Stephen and seems to be talking to him. The heads and the way the hair of both saints is modelled are based on Roman portrait busts.

Stephen and Lawrence     Cosmas and Damian
Donatello 'Stephen and Lawrence' ancient sacristy San Lorenzo   Donatello 'Cosmas and Damian' ancient sacristy San Lorenzo

 

The bronze doors: the ‘martyr’s door’ and the ‘apostle’s door’

Analysis of the bronze doors in the Ancient Sacristy of the San Lorenzo shows that this bronze contains twenty-five percent tin. Tin was expensive and normally only ten percent tin was used for bronze. The more tin the harder the bronze becomes. A lot of tin was mainly added to the copper when clocks had to be made. That is why it was probably bell makers who cast these doors.137 This mixture with such a high tin content is ideal for bells, but not for statues or reliefs. Such an alloy of copper and tin is rather brittle, which makes the extensive cropping (chiselling cast objects with a chisel or making figures in them) an extremely difficult task. Moreover, the hammering for this type of bronze is also a risk, because it easily cracks. It is with good reason that the doors of the Ancient Sacristy have hardly been worked on. The heads of the apostles and martyrs are rather sketchy and still strongly resemble the wax model. The background of the figures is flat and cleaned after it came out of the mould. The only chiselled places are the draperies of the apostles and martyrs. Donatello worked the robes with a drift hammer and a narrow round head hammer, a so-called hammer pin. This allows the figures to separate from the background.

The doors are quite simple and in design resemble the usual wooden doors or small ivory altarpieces. All the panels of the two doors, twenty in total, have in common that on each panel there are always two figures facing each other. Figures that always react to each other; they are in a conversation, have a heated discussion or turn away from each other. For many pictures of the door of the martyrs and the door of the apostles see Wikipedia (Italian). 

Door of the martyrs   Door of the Apostles
 Donatello door of the martyrs ancient sacristy San Lorenzo   Donatello 'door of the Apostles' ancient sacristy San Lorenzo

The way Donatello depicts the postures of the figures gave rise to the necessary comments from Alberti and Filarete, among others. The latter’s criticism was partly based on Alberti’s, ‘De Pictura’, and read: ‘it suits a runner to wave his arms and legs, but a philosopher who changes his mind must restrain his attitude instead of behaving like a fencer’ Alberti, however, believes that because of the suggestion of movement and the acquisition of lively figures, you should not show illogical postures. For instance, you cannot show both the front and the reverse, because that results in ‘fencers and acrobats without any artistic dignity’.’138 It is quite possible that Donatello also depicted real philosophers and theologians in his left door. The books, the gestures, the pointing fingers, the looks and postures are reminiscent of theological debates. The sources on which Donatello relies are probably found in Byzantine miniatures, just like the images in the tondos.139

Apostles in debate big size
Donatello 'Apostles in debate' door ancient sacristy San Lorenzo

The figures on the right door can be identified, but this only applies to the two panels on the top of the other door. However, the martyrs did have their usual attribute: the palm branch. Some martyrs use this branch as a pen. According to Pope-Hennessy, no real palm branches are depicted here either, but pens.140 Peter can be seen in the right door while pointing at Paul. Paul was angry at a remark from Peter. He makes a retreating and defensive gesture with the hand resting on his sword.

Peter and  Paul

Donatello Peter and  Paul door ancient Sacristy San Lorenzo

Peter rebelled against Paul because he did not behave Jewish. This can be read in the New Testament in Galáten 2: 11-14

 ‘At the table with Gentiles, but when they came he [Paul] withdrew and secluded for fear of the circumcised [the Jews].

The bronze reliefs on the ‘door of the martyrs’ give the impression of a ‘certain speed and lightness’. In comparison, the reliefs of the other door are a lot less interesting and rather mediocre, according to Pope-Hennessy.141 Donatello had only completed one door before he left for Padua. The ‘door of the saints’ was received rather critically, it probably deviated too much from how an artist at that time was supposed to depict reality. Donatello was rather stubborn. Of course he remains a Renaissance artist. Yet his style is occasionally quite different from how other artists like Ghiberti worked, but more about this when we look at the pulpits in the nave of the Santa Croce.

The door with the saints is certainly by Donatello’s hand. The two upper figures to the right of the other door, Cosmas and Damian, are not from Donatello, but probably from Michelozzo.142 They were made after Donatello left for Padua.

Donatello creates the illusion of depth at the door panels in a completely different way than in his tondos. Two figures with a background in which no landscape, architecture or clouds can be seen, but only polished bronze. The background is smooth while the figures themselves are roughly worked, with the signs of the chisel still visible. The frames of each panel are used by Donatello as vertical and horizontal spatial elements. By placing the foot of a figure on the lower frame and even making it protrude, it becomes a floor at the same time. In the same way Donatello uses the vertical frames. In the relief below, the right figure shows his left arm and shoulder behind this frame and his right hand just in front.

Apostles big size
Donatello Apostles door of the martyrs ancient Sacristy San Lorenzo

The effect of this is that you immediately see a continuous space behind the vertical frame as if it were the column of a loggia. In all twenty scenes, Donatello manipulates with similar postures of the figures and always with the effect that there seems to be a real space.

We now walk back to the nave where on both sides you can see two pulpits on four columns with bronze reliefs.

To the next page day 4