San Lorenzo: the pulpits of Donatello in the nave and the tabernacle of the sacraments of Desiderio da Settignano

unknown painter from Florence posthumous portrait Donatello 17th century
detail

The pulpits are the last work by Donatello.143 Vasari writes the following about this:

He also designed the bronze pulpits, showing the Passion of Christ: a work of great strength and ingenuity, well composed from an abundance of figures

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Preekstoel Donatello San Lorenzo

and buildings; since Donatello was too old to finish them, they were completed by his pupil Bertoldo, who truly brought them to perfection.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part 1 p. 201 (original edition 1568). For more images click here for Web Gallery of Art. Click here for an overview of San Lorenzo architecture and sculpture.

If you compare the two pulpits with each other, or the reliefs, you will see remarkable differences. For example, the left pulpit is fairly homogeneous, but the same cannot be said for the right one. The reliefs on the long side of the right pulpit protrude in a quite unsightly fashion at the ends. It has long been thought that the two pulpits originally belonged together, but this does not appear to be the case. The fifteen reliefs (two from the seventeenth century and with a wooden core covered with bronze) were not designed as one work of art. In the 1970s, art historians Herzner and Beccherucci discovered that the reliefs of the right pulpit were originally made for the tomb of Cosimo the Elder.144

left south side
The Passion Pulpit
  Right north side
The Resurrection Pulpit
7  altar 12
     
1  crossing 11
     
    8
6    
     
 

nave

 
2   9
    13
     
    10
     
5    
3   14
     
4

entrance

15
1.  The Passion Pulpits
2.  Johan 17th century
3.  Christ in the olive garden
4.  Christ before Pilate
5. Crucifixion
6. Lamentation Christ
7. Tombing
  8.   Mockup Christ
9.   Luke 17th century
10. Martyrdom Laurentius
11. Christ in the foreboding
12. Three Mary’s at the grave
13. Tomb resurrection Christ
14. Ascension of Christ
15. Pentecost

Other remarkable differences between the reliefs are the unequal heights and the number of scenes. For example, the long side of one pulpit has two narrative reliefs – at least on the side of the nave – while the other has three. In addition, the frames have little in common. In one pulpit, wild horses are visible at the corners of the frieze, while the other pulpit lacks this. Moreover, as you could read above, the work was not finished by Donatello. He had four assistants. We know two of them: Giovanni di Bertoldo, who would later train the young Michelangelo as a sculptor, and a fellow named Bellano. As we discuss and look at the reliefs we will also try to find out which reliefs have a clearly different style and differ from the way Donatello used to work.

The scenes (numbers 10 to 15) for the tomb of Cosimo the Elder are designed in such a way that they have to be seen from above. The reliefs with these six scenes are, as you can see when you stand at the right pulpit, placed too high, so unfortunately the height and distance make them difficult to observe..

Ascension of Christ
detail
Donatello pulpit Ascension of Christ detail San Lorenzo

 

The pulpit with the Passion of Christ

The Crucifixion and the Lamentation of Christ (or Descent from the Cross)

First, we look at the pulpit on the south side that deals with the Passion of Christ and ends with the burial. Two stories can be seen on the long side of the nave: the Crucifixion and the Lamentation. These reliefs are made from a bottom view. The difference between the Crucifixion and the Lamentation is striking. In the Crucifixion, Christ is central and we no longer look down, but we are at the same level as the feet of Christ on the cross. The crosses are placed parallel to the image plane. The crucified figures are coarse and modelled with little nuance. According to Pope-Hennessy, it is likely that no model of Donatello was used for this, but rather it is a work of Bellano.145

Donatello Crucifixion big size
Donatello Pulpit Crucifixion San Lorenzo

Donatello pulpit Crucifixion San Lorenzo

Much more interesting is the Lamentation or Descent from the Cross to the right of the Crucifixion. In the Lamentation, the three crosses were placed at an angle of 45 degrees on the image plane and largely cut off. In the middle is the ladder with which Christ was removed from the cross. The two thieves are strangely cut off: the thief on the left just above the knee and the other one has no visible head. As viewers we have only a very limited view of what is happening before us. Such cuts go against the principles of the Renaissance.

Donatello Lamentation or Descent from the Cross big size
Donatello Lamentation or Descent from the Cross San Lorenzo

In this Lamentation at the bottom of the cross, Donatello places a strong emphasis on the whole range of human reactions to death. There are three women who walk with their hands in the air, hands in despair and a woman on the far right is clutching her head. These women are based on the classic images of Menades. The faces of the women, including Mary, depicted in the centre near Christ, are largely covered by their headscarves. As far as the latter is concerned, Donatello is not only influenced by the remains of antiquity, but also by the classical texts of Pliny Timanthes, Cicero, Quintilianus and the text of a contemporary of Donatello: Alberti. Who writes in his Della Pittura: Menelaus, he could not find a good way to show an expression of his desperate father: so he covered his head with a cloth, leaving it to the viewer to think about the grief this father would have.’146

Descent from the cross and lamentation
detail
Donatello Descent from the cross and lamentation Pulpit San Lorenzo

At the bottom right lies a figure that is completely exhausted by emotions. This figure is based on the reliefs of classical river gods. On the right, by the ladder, an old man with a beard, Nicodemus, stares in disbelief at the nails of Christ that he holds in his hand. Through the ladder, behind Mary, John can be seen with his head turned away from the dead Christ. To the left of John on the other side of the cross stands the man who commissioned these reliefs: Cosimo the Old.147 The lady to his left with a veil is his wife.

Cosimo and his wife 
Donatello Pulpit Cosimo and his wife San Lorenzo

In the lower central part, the composition is very quiet and we see Christ and Mary. Maria’s headscarf is highly three-dimensional in design – high relief – and also well-polished, giving Mary a shadow over her face. The grief of Christ’s mother is hidden from the viewer, further stimulating the viewer’s imagination.

Two Descents of the Cross: a comparison

A comparison of Donatello’s Lamentation (descent from the cross ) with a painted Descent from the Cross by Fra Angelico, as Bennett and Wilkins do, who wrote a monograph on Donatello, is very illustrative.148 This shows that although Donatello is of course a Renaissance artist, he also has a unique individual style. On the days of painting we will return to this in the monastery of San Marco where we will see the Descent from the Cross of Fra Angelico. Donatello’s personal view of the crucifixion is decisive and emotions are central. Donatello’s composition is impressive, but certainly not beautiful. Fra Angelico made a weighted and balanced composition of his Descent from the Cross. Moreover, he uses beautiful colours, a view through a landscape and there is no question of torn emotions. The viewer’s eye can escape, but Donatello’s Descent from the Cross does not offer the same.

Fra Angelico “Descent from the Cross”
Fra Angelico "Descent from the Cross" San Marco

Fra Angelico Crucifixion museum San Marco

With the exception of the foreground, the Lamentation has a rough surface, this contributes to the overall mood. Fra Angelico’s Descent from the cross is perfectly finished, no brushstroke to see, soft pleasant colours, elegant postures and certainly no hysterical women. The quattrocento greatly appreciated craftsmanship, elegance and a good finish. Very different from Donatello’s: his horses with their riders in the relief of the Lamentation resemble clay sketches rather than a completed work of art. According to Baccio Bandinelli (a contemporary of Vasari) there were many errors to be seen in the reliefs of the pulpit. On the rather flat background in the Lamentation, horses can be seen in low relief without it becoming clear what these horses stand on. Bandinelli attributed this shortcoming to Donatello’s old age and his bad eyes. Vasari also writes that Donatello, due to his age, could no longer complete the reliefs himself.149 De achtergrond was in tegenstelling tot de voorgrond nog niet uitgewerkt. Contrary to the foreground, the background had not yet been worked out. The foreground is likely to have been completed by Bertoldo.150

We cast another glance at the scene where Christ stands before Pilate (number 4) on the east side of the pulpit. Here you see Christ before Caiaphas on your right and Pilate on your left. Both scenes are again shown in bottom view. The background continues with both scenes and consists of a large hall with barrel vaults.

Christ before Pilate large size
detail
  Christ before Caiaphas large size
detail
Donatello Pulpit Christ before Pilate San Lorenzo   Donatello Pulpit Christ before Caiaphas San Lorenzo

The column in the middle in front of the pillar resembles the Trajan’s column with its long spiralling relief band. The whole is strongly reminiscent of Donatello’s earlier relief in Padua, the Miracle of the Donkey The figure below and in the middle in front of the column with the right hand at his forehead is probably Longinus, this is where the lines of perspective meet. Pilate on his throne stretches his arm out to Christ as if he is calling him to speak. Directly behind Pilate stands his wife: she tries to persuade her husband not to kill Christ. Slightly higher than the woman stands a younger man with a double face, a Janus head, with a water basin. We’ve seen this before at Donatello, on the corners of the predella of his recess at the Orsanmichele. The recess for which he made the Louis of Toulouse, but where later the disbelieving Thomas meets Christ was standing. In this bronze relief the meaning of the double head is obvious. Pilate will of course use the water that the boy with the Janus head brings to wash his hands after the verdict. Christ stands in the middle and his face is not visible.

The pulpit with the resurrection of Christ

We will limit ourselves to three reliefs: one on the short side: Three Mary’s at the grave on the west side (number 12) and two on the long side at the side of the nave: the Limbo of hell and the Resurrection of Christ from his grave (numbers: 11 and 13).

the pulpit at the nave and the other side
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Donatello pulpit San Lorenzo

Three Mary’s at the grave

Donatello’s composition is based on a 1447 fresco by Andrea del Castagno in Sant Apollonia. We will take a closer look at this mural on the days of painting. To make a clearer distinction between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion above it, Castagno painted a separate room with red tiles. Donatello has translated this principle into bronze.

Andrea del Castagno Crossing, burial and resurrection  below: Last Supper refectory of the Sant’Apollonia
Andrea del Castagno Crossing, burial and resurrection  below: Last Supper refectory of the Sant'Apollonia

The bronze structure really sticks out here, creating a real three-dimensional space in which the figures are placed. This way, the whole thing literally comes to the viewer, thus making a big impact.

Three Mary’s and the Resurrection large size
detail
Donatello Pulpit Three Mary's and the Resurrection San Lorenzo

A little to the left of the middle is a sarcophagus: the grave of Christ. In the background you can still see trees with their crown. The three women you see on the left are: Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. They have the herbs to embalm Jesus in their hands. The figure at the back is the angel who, according to Mark 16: 6-7 spoke unto the women with the words: Be not appalled, Jesus seeks ye, the Nazarene, the crucified. He is resurrected, He is not here … There is no optimistic mood or joy because the Lord has risen, but fear, amazement, fear and alienation are what mark the three women. One woman – behind the angel – looks hysterically into the empty grave. The middle woman looks incredulously at the angel pointing at the grave and holds her hand around the pillar, afraid of fainting. The composition is asymmetrical, the most important event is only shown on the left. Here Donatello again deviates strongly from how an artist should work according to the generally prevailing views in the Renaissance.

The Limbo of Hell and the Resurrection of Christ

The three scenes on the front, Christ in Limbo, Resurrection and Ascension, are made from a low perspective. These three events are forged into a unity by the background, the continuous architecture. The four walls that emerge clearly delineate the stories depicted.

Donatello pulpit San Lorenzo

The relief that precedes the Resurrection is the Liberation from limbo. The latter takes place after the Crucifixion and Tombing and before the Resurrection. In Limbo, in which Christ descends to free the prisoners from the devil, you see in the middle a Christ standing bent forward. Satan is clearly impressed and steps back in panic. John the Baptist standing in front of the protruding wall has stretched out his right hand to greet the liberator.

Christ in the limbo of hell
John the Baptist
Donatello Christ in the limbo of hell San Lorenzo pulpit

Like the three Marys who visit the grave, from an iconographical perspective, the Resurrection is highly innovative because it is neither cheerful nor heroic. The Christ does not make a victorious impression, rather, it does the opposite. Christ laboriously drags himself out of his grave. He is still suffering from the crucifixion, which is unique in the history of art.

Two resurrections: a comparison between Donatello and Castagno

Bennett and Wilkins, who wrote a monograph about Donatello, draw an illuminating comparison between a common grave resurrection and the one by Donatello.151

Tomb resurrection Christ
detail

The resurrection that Andrea del Castagno painted in 1447 in the Sant’Apollonia did correspond to the prevailing views of that time. Castagno shows Christ as a victorious young beardless man. He has a white cloth around his muscular body and looks cheerful. The Christ of Donatello looks tormented and his attitude reveals fatigue. He is still wearing the shroud, unlike John writes in 20: 5: Bowing down, he [Peter] saw the bandages, but he did not enter. The eyes of Christ are barely opened with Donatello. Castagno has put Christ in the middle of a triangular composition that was popular during the quattrocento. Very different from Donatello who places Christ far from the centre on the left. The landscape of Castagno allows the eye to wander, contrary to what Donatello’s work shows. In Castagno’s fresco, one soldier behind the coffin looks at the resurrection. At Donatello there are no witnesses present: they sleep as if they were drugged. The scorpion on the shield with Donatello certainly has no purely decorative function, but a symbolic one. It is an illustration of what is said in Corinthians 15: 55- 56: Death where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?

grave resurrection: Donatello
Andrea del Castagno
Donatello detail: grave resurrection Pulpit San Lorenzo

In 2014 the pulpit with the resurrection was restored.

restoration of the pulpit of the resurrection 2014
Donatello restoration of the pulpit of the resurrection 2014

 

Donatello pulpit detail OPVS DONATELLI FLO San Lorenzo

 

The San Lorenzo and the sacraments tabernacle of Desiderio da Settignano

Before we look at the work of Settignano, we now walk to the aisle on the right where we have a look at the cenotaph of Donatello. It is not located here, but in the crypt near the tomb of Cosimo the Elder under the celebration.

Dario Guidotti and Rafaello Romanelli large size
Cenotaph of Donatello
Dario Guidotti and Rafaello Romanelli Cenotaph of Donatello Martelli chapel San Lorenzo

Vasari describes Donatello as a lovable and generous man. He never cared about money. He kept his ducats in a basket that hung high from the ceiling. Everyone who worked for him could pull the string to lower the basket and could take as much money as he needed.152 At the end of his life, Donatello was assisted by Cosimo and other friends. Cosimo’s son, Piero, took care of Donatello after his father’s death. Donatello was given a farm.

“Yet he had not owned it for more than a year when he returned to Piero and officially handed over the farm to him again, saying that he did not want to sacrifice his peace of mind to domestic care and to the farmer who was bothering him; every three days this farmer came to him, sometimes because the roof of his dovecote had been blown away, sometimes because he had lost his cattle to the municipal tax, and sometimes because his wine and fruit had been lost in the storm; Donatello was so fed up with all this, it was so tiresome, that he would rather perish of hunger than deal with any more of these issues. Piero laughed at Donatello’s simplicity, and in order to relieve him of this burden he took over the farm exactly as the other person wanted, and through his own bank he placed a sum of money on Donatello’s name that yielded the same or more, but in amounts that were paid to him in cash every week […]”

Giorgio Vasari, De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I p. 203-204 (original edition 1568).

Some statues of Donatello like the two Davids, we will discuss later when we visit the Bargello.

The tabernacle of sacraments by Desiderio da Settignano

We now walk to the right aisle, where you can see the work of Settignano just before the celebration.153 If you look at the putti, the angels and the three figures in the relief at the bottom, you will notice how different the figures of Desiderio are. Donatello, whom we have just seen, and Settignano are both artists from the Renaissance, but what a difference in style. Although the figures of Settignano are very true to nature, it is striking that they are charming and sensual, very different from the Christ of Donatello who rises from his grave. Despite this big difference you see here, if you look closely, Donatello has indeed had an influence on Desiderio da Settignano.154

Desiderio da Settignano The tabernacle of sacraments
Desiderio da Settignano The tabernacle of sacraments San Lorenzo

The tabernacle is dedicated to the wafer and was placed around 1461 in the chapel of the left transept near the Old Sacristy. The client may have been Cosimo the Elder, but at the very least he must have given permission for this work.155  After all, this basilica was a church of the Medici as we have already seen during the days of architecture. The tabernacle of sacrament is very similar to the Annunciation by Donatello. However, the narrative relief of Donatello has been replaced by Settignano with an architectural space with a barrel vault where angels appear on both sides. The lines of the floor, the architrave and the lines of the coffering in the barrel vault meet at one point and exactly where the wafer was stored. The believer could pray for the sacred host at this altar.

We now leave the San Lorenzo. We will return to this church later, but then we go inside at the back to see the statues of Michelangelo in the New Sacristy. We now go to the district of Santa Croce, to see the work of the young sculptor Michelangelo. Donatello is undisputedly the greatest sculptor of the fifteenth century. In the same century, in its last quarter, a new artist emerged who would become the greatest sculptor of the sixteenth century: Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Casa Buonarroti entrance

picture: dvdbramhall

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