Category Archives: Sculpture


Nicola Pisano’s Baptistery Pulpit in Pisa

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Nicola Pisano, Baptistery Pulpit, Pisa Cathedral, 1259-61

Changes in styles or movements in the history of art are often the result of gradual phenomena, so the creation of new works which signal sudden changes are particularly significant. One such work which art historians point to as signaling a turning point in Western sculpture is the pulpit for the Pisa baptistery, created by Nicola Pisano from 1259-1261. The pulpit contains the first sculpted reliefs of its kind and is a work that is considered to mark the beginning of an entirely new phase within the history of art. It is the incipient work of the proto-Renaissance, one which foreshadowed the great works of Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Despite this association of the pulpit with Renaissance sculpture, it was completed contemporaneously with works that fell stylistically within the timeframe of Gothic art, which by the mid-thirteenth century had spread well beyond its origin of the Île-de-France.

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The baptistery pulpit is located on the south side of the building. In this photo, it is to the left of the baptismal font.
Photo by Fr James Bradley cc Nicola Pisanos Baptistery Pulpit in Pisa
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Lions circling crouching humans at the base of the pulpit.

Nicola’s pulpit is presently located in the Pisa baptistery on the southern side of the building, or to the left of the font, though originally it was probably located to the right of the font (see photo). The pulpit takes the shape of a hexagon elevated on seven columns, six of which form a ring around its outer portion while one stands in the center. At the base of three of these columns are sculpted lions which look inward at the base of the middle column, on which sculpted figures are huddled low in crouching positions. These figures have been interpreted in different ways by scholars; one interpretation holds that they represent the pagan forces that are controlled by Christianity, while at the base of three of the outer columns are lions ravishing their prey. Alternatively, the middle figures have been interpreted as Old Testament figures (Noah, Daniel, and Job) who represent the pre-Christian world, and the lions have been seen to represent Virtues on account of their nurturing natures. In either case, it is clear that the pulpit’s iconographic program has been imbued with Christian ideals which frame the way in which the structure was meant to be viewed by the public.

The free-standing design and hexagonal shape of the pulpit make it structurally distinctive compared to the majority of pulpits that preceded it. In Tuscany, pulpits tended to be rectangular prior to this time, although some polygonal pulpits did appear in minor churches in nearby Italian regions. Two examples of traditional pulpit design can be seen at San Miniato al Monte in Florence from 1207, and at San Cristoforo in Barga from the mid-thirteenth century.  According to one scholar, the reason for the hexagonal shape of the Pisa baptistery pulpit was due to the peculiar plan of the building, which was a round baptistery rather than a basilica with flat walls. Nicola would have recognized the lower level of compatibility of a rectangular pulpit situated near an octagonal baptismal font, both of which were in a centralized space. Thus, it was simple artistic convention affected by the associated circumstances of the architectural surroundings which at least partially influenced the basic structure of Nicola’s pulpit.

At the top of the columns of the Pisa baptistery pulpit are capitals adorned with prominent acanthus leaves, indicating a variation on the classical Corinthian order. Resting on top of the outer ring of columns are rounded arches and a carved trilobe pattern attached to their soffits. The place where the pulpit rests on top of the columns is decorated with sculpted virtue figures over the capitals and prophets in the adjacent spandrels. Virtually every inch of the spandrels and corners above the capitals are adorned with sculpted reliefs.

While the configuration of the pulpit introduced some new features to thirteenth-century sculpture, Nicola made even greater strides forward in his narrative panels and sculpted figures on the pulpit. The scenes on the panels depict the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment. Thematically, these scenes relate to the idea of Christian Redemption, beginning with the creation of Christ’s earthly reign. In presenting this, his focus was on the human figure, and each of the panels recalls the classical past.

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Nativity scene, panel from the Pisa baptistery pulpit.

These first two panel narrative scenes, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi, were typical pulpit scenes in Tuscany but here Nicola gave them a natural feel which was novel for the time. In the former, he based his image of Mary on a form from Etruscan tomb sculpture and in the latter he borrowed from a sarcophagus image of the Phaedra to depict her. The folds in the garments of the Adoration Virgin become thick, and he even drew from a Greek precedent to depict one of the men in this scene. Also in the Adoration, Nicola depicted the Christ Child not in an iconic way but as a chubby baby who reaches out for the gifts of the Magi. The horses in the scene are also depicted naturally, with pair to the top having flared nostrils and enlarged veins as if they had just come to a stop. Nicola carved the facial hair and coiffures of the kings in classical form while their drapery does not hide their moving bodies.

In the panel of the Presentation in the Temple, Nicola shows the account from Luke 2 in which Mary and Joseph take the Christ Child to the temple for his circumcision according to the law of Moses (Figure 8). Here, the main characters of the story are situated most conspicuously: Joseph carrying the pair of doves, Mary, and Simeon with the Christ Child in his arms. To the right of Simeon is Anna the prophetess with a scroll in her hand. Of uncertain identity is the man to her right, whose left arms is held up by a boy. It has been suggested that this man is either Simeon represented again, or an allusion to Mary’s Purification.

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The Crucifixion, panel from the Pisa baptistery pulpit.
Photo by Fr James Bradley cc Nicola Pisanos Baptistery Pulpit in Pisa

The Crucifixion scene depicts more classically-inspired figures within an interesting iconographic scheme. Christ is nailed to a cross made of tree limbs rather than posts, something which points to the idea of the Tree of Life and the future rather than the current victory of Jesus which was more typical. Three nails go through his body, rather than four, which alludes to the Trinity. While this had been done before in other parts of Europe, it was unique to Italy. Also, the figure of the Virgin, as she falls into the arms of the other women under the weight of much grief, adds something new to the iconography of this scene.

One of the more interesting changes, and a departure from many Gothic depictions, is Nicola’s composition of the Last Judgment scene (Figure 10). The scene depicts Christ with the good souls on one side and the bad on the other, but in this particular depiction the two sides are given a disproportionate amount of space. Here, it is the good who have benefited, as they received a greater portion of the scene, a feature which is atypical in Last Judgment imagery. It has been suggested that this thematic alteration may be due to a new-found sense of mercy that Christ extends to mankind, echoed by the placement of Mary at the right hand of Christ. At the same time, included in this scene is an image of hell, which may serve to even out the disparity because of the sizable area given to the good.

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Fortitude, capital figure from the Pisa baptistery pulpit.

Apart from the narrative panels, the sculpted figures standing on top of the column capitals stand prominently in view and carry on the use of antique forms in the pulpit. While the exact source of Fortitude, depicted in contrapposto stance, is unclear, it is evident that this is nevertheless classically-inspired and constitutes a new use of the nude figure, since nudity had previously been reserved for use in specific situations such as the Last Judgment and the Book of Genesis. Whereas Fortitude had traditionally been depicted through accessories, here Nicola depicted the virtue through a Herculean bodily form.

Aside from the anthropomorphic carvings, there are several other notable sculpted items on the pulpit. Each relief is set in a frame of red marble and separated from one another horizontally by groups of colonnettes. The grouping of three colonettes that separate the panels of the pulpit are French in origin, a motif that Nicola may have taken from his time in Apulia. Of these colonnette groupings, one of them differs because of the insertion of the desk into this place. The desk, which consists of an angled surface on a vertical structure, is typical of Italian pulpits and is normally supported by the outstretched wings of a sculpted eagle. The eagle, which is the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, was normally depicted along with the symbols of the other Gospel writers in close arrangement on the vertical support; however, in the Pisa baptistery pulpit, Nicola omitted these other symbols and instead left the eagle alone, grasping a critter in its talons.

Considering the pulpit as a whole, already it is possible to see several advancements made in Nicola’s approach to his work, such as the aforementioned freestanding nature and shape of the pulpit. But it is truly when this was combined with the sculptural program that we can consider it as being a truly groundbreaking work. The pulpit contrasts with some other pulpits in the region, such as the pulpit in San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, where Fra Guglielmo also copied sarcophagus sculpture but did so in a way that Pope-Hennessy says utilized a lesser degree of undercutting and achieved a more elementary expressive impact. Also, it contrasts with the pulpit at San Leonardo in Arcetri, whose reliefs show garments that do not respond to the contours of the body but instead merely fall in lines to convey shape.

The narrative reliefs also provide us with the traditional explanation for the break between what is considered “Gothic” on one hand, and “proto-Renaissance” on the other. Typical of Tuscan art, the narratives are heavily populated with figures, but here their bodies are fully depicted, similar to the way figures were represented in Roman sarcophagi. The bodily features of the figures on the reliefs are thick, and their many garments fall in a way that indicates the parts of their bodies underneath. While Nicola was not the first artist to take from classical sources in sculpture, he did so in a more complete and comprehensive way unlike that of his predecessors. Tuscan sculptors would sometimes use ancient ideas in their sculpture, but in a sporadic way. They did not use it in a comprehensive manner, at least until Nicola started doing so. Nicola’s intention was not to use classical sculptural ideas to supplement what was already existing in thirteenth century sculpture, but to come up with an entirely new style for the age, though one which was based on the past.


Donatello’s St. George

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Donatello, St. George, c. 1410-1415, marble

Donatello carved his statue of St. George for the guild of armorers and swordmakers in Florence.  Like the statue of St. Mark, the statue of St. George was destined for the guild’s niche in the building of Orsanmichele.  Because the guild was of average size, it could only afford a statue of marble, rather than of bronze.

St. George was the patron saint of the armorer’s guild and was known as a military figure, one who was well-known in the Byzantine East, but who was also known by the Crusaders who battled Muslim forces in the Holy Land.  A popular tale involving St. George defeating the dragon came to be known through the collection of stories called the Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) in the late thirteenth century.

In Donatello’s work, St. George was carved with a confident posture.  He stands tall with his shield in front of him that looks as if could rotate on its small base which touches the ground.  This implies, at the very least, a sense of readiness on the part of the saint to quickly confront enemies coming from different directions.  To enhance the look of the statue, the guild created special special adornments for it, which might have been put on display on special days of the year, such as the Feast of St. George.  These adornments would have included a sword, held in his right hand, a helmet, and a belt.  They would have given the statue a bold appearance of metal on marble, and the sword would have projected forward, out of the niche, creating a very visible statement to all walking down the street in front of Orsanmichele.

Unlike the statue of St. Mark, the statue of St. George does not stand in contrapposto.  Instead, both legs are clearly supporting the saint’s weight, although the front of his left foot is not completely planted on the ground, but instead partially hangs off the front of the base.  The purpose of the stance that Donatello gave to St. George was to suggest stability and immobility; he is not supposed to be interpreted as moving, but instead, as stable and unmoveable.  This is a defensive posture.

The reason for such a stance has been linked to political events surrounding Florence during the years leading up to the statue’s creation.  Although Florence was a free Republic during this time, it faced threats by other cities who were more powerful than itself.  One of these cities was Milan, which had been led in 1402 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti to the doorstep of Florence.  With the city surrounded and Florence on the verge of invasion, disease swept through the Milanese army, forcing it to withdraw.  Around the year 1410, a different threat emerged from the south.  An army from Naples, led by a tyrant, moved north and again Florence was in danger of being invaded.  However, before the threat could turn into disaster for the Florentines, the Neapolitan tyrant was struck by a disease and died.  Thus, Florence was spared again from being the conquest of a more powerful foe.  Donatello’s depiction of St. George seems to reflect the idea of standing tall against an approaching enemy.  It was a spirit that must have been shared by Florentines of the day on account of contemporary events, and Donatello used it as the source for the disposition of his statue.

The spirit of standing strong against one’s enemies also seems to be reflected in the face of St. George.  He turns his neck slightly to his left, his mouth is barely opened, and his pupils show a glance which is up and to his left, rather than directly in front of him.  His expression is one of intense concentration, reflected in his wrinkled brow.  This is a look of courage and resolve; this is a figure who will not back down.  Thus, St. George’s facial expression complements the posture of his body to create a memorable statement not only about this man in particular, but also about the Florentine spirit in general.


Donatello’s Gattamelata

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Donatelllo, Gattamelata, 1445-53, bronze

Donatello had been working in Florence for many years before he eventually moved to northern Italy and to the city of Padua, which was under Venetian control at the time.  He worked for over ten years there, during which time he gained a following and would go on to have a significant influence on painting and sculpture in the region.

One of the great works Donatello created while in Padua was the Gattamelata, the name of which means “honeyed cat”.  This funny-sounding name was the nickname of Erasmo da Narni, a condottiere (mercenary) who fought for Venice and is the person depicted riding the horse.  Normally, equestrian statues could legally only depict rulers, which Erasmo was not.  It is therefore likely that the Venetian Senate had to authorize the creation of this work by making an exception to its rule.

256px Gattamelata head Donatellos GattamelataThe city of Padua wanted to honor Erasmo after his death, and they did so by placing this equestrian statue of him in front of the main church in the city.  While equestrian statues of this type may not seem notable to us nowadays, in the mid-fifteenth century, it was significant at the time for its naturalism and the way it rivaled ancient sculpture.  While there had been some other equestrian works executed over the centuries, there were none like this.  According to Vasari, the work was compared to antique sculpture during the Renaissance.  He wrote that Donatello “proved himself such a master in the proportions and excellence of so great a casting, that he can truly bear comparison with any ancient craftsman in movement, design, art, proportion, and diligence wherefore it not only astonished all who saw it then, but continues to astonish every person who sees it at the present day.”

The statue is situated on an elliptical base, and Erasmo is dressed in military gear – he is wearing armor and has his sword by his side.  His body is in natural proportion to his horse (something that is not always true with other equestrian statues), which indicates that Donatello was trying to achieve a high level of naturalism here.  Erasmo is not shown as a deity, but instead as someone who conveys intelligence, courage, and confident – a rather triumphant figure who rides on a horse with its hoof on an orb, a symbol of power.

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Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, c. 175 A.D.
Overall, this is a work that is reminiscent of a famous antique equestrian statue depicting the emperor Marcus Aurelius.  However, whereas that statue honored an all-powerful figure, this figure honors someone who did not rule, but only worked on behalf of a civic authority.  Donatello (and those who commissioned the work) looked to antiquity to revive this form of monumental sculpture, but the glorification of someone of lesser rank seems to be more in keeping with contemporary humanist practices of honoring individual achievement.

Donatello received praise for his work done in Padua, but rather than making him want to stay there, it had the opposite effect on him and made him want to leave.  Vasari says that he “determined to return to Florence, saying that if he remained any longer in Padua he would forget everything that he knew, being so greatly praised there by all, and that he was glad to return to his own country, where he would gain nothing but censure, since such censure would urge him to study and would enable him to attain to greater glory.”  For Donatello, motivation to achieve greatness came about more through criticism than through praise.


Michelangelo’s Pieta

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Michelangelo, Pieta, c. 1498-1500, marble

Michelangelo carved a number of works in Florence during his time with the Medici, but in the 1490s he left Florence and briefly went to Venice, Bologna, and then to Rome, where he lived from 1496-1501.  In 1497, a cardinal named Jean de Billheres commissioned Michelangelo to create a work of sculpture to go into a side chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The resulting work – the Pieta – would be so successful that it helped launch Michelangelo’s career unlike any previous work he had done.

Michelangelo claimed that the block of Carrara marble he used to work on this was the most “perfect” block he ever used, and he would go on to polish and refine this work more than any other statue he created.

The scene of the Pieta shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after his crucifixion, death, and removal from the cross, but before he was placed in the tomb.  This is one of the key events from the life of the Virgin, known as the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which were the subject of Catholic devotional prayers.  The subject matter was one which would have probably been known by many people, but in the late fifteenth century it was depicted in artworks more commonly in France and Germany than in Italy.

This was a special work of art even in the Renaissance because at the time, multi-figured sculptures were rare.  These two figures are carved so as to appear in a unified composition which forms the shape of a pyramid, something that other Renaissance artists (e.g. Leonardo) also favored.

Michelangelo pieta detail 2 300x300 Michelangelos PietaAn examination of each figure reveals that their proportions are not entirely natural in relation to the other.  Although their heads are proportional, the Virgin’s body is larger than Christ’s body.  She appears so large that if she stood up, she would likely tower over her son.  The reason Michelangelo did this was probably because it was necessary so that the Virgin could support her son on her lap; had her body been smaller, it might have been very difficult or awkward for her to have held an adult male as gracefully as she does.  To assist in this matter, Michelangelo has amassed the garments on her lap into a sea of folded drapery to make her look larger.  While this drapery serves this practical purpose, it also allowed Michelangelo to display his virtuosity and superb technique when using a drill to cut deeply into the marble.  After his work on the marble was complete, the marble looked less like stone and more like actual cloth because of its multiplicity of natural-looking folds, curves, and deep recesses.

[su_pullquote]In her utter sadness and devastation, she seems resigned to what has happened, and becomes enveloped in graceful acceptance.[/su_pullquote]Michelangelo’s talent in carving drapery is matched by his handling of the human forms in the Christ and the Virgin, both of whom retain a sweet tenderness despite the very tragic nature of this scene.  This is, of course, the moment when the Virgin is confronted with the reality of the death of her son.  In her utter sadness and devastation, she seems resigned to what has happened, and becomes enveloped in graceful acceptance.  Christ, too, is depicted almost as if he is in a peaceful slumber, and not one who has been bloodied and bruised after hours of torture and suffering.  In supporting Christ, the Virgin’s right hand does not come into direct contact with his flesh, but instead it is covered with a cloth which then touches Christ’s side.  This signifies the sacredness of Christ’s body.  Overall, these two figures are beautiful and idealized, despite their suffering.  This reflects the High Renaissance belief in Neo-Platonic ideals in that beauty on earth reflected God’s beauty, so these beautiful figures were echoing the beauty of the divine.

Michelangelo pieta inscription 300x300 Michelangelos PietaAround the time the work was finished, there was a complaint against Michelangelo because of the way he depicted the Virgin.  She appears rather young – so young, in fact, that she could scarcely be the mother of a thirty-three-year-old son.  Michelangelo’s answer to this criticism was simply that women who are chaste retain their beauty longer, which meant that the Virgin would not have aged like other women usually do.

Another noteworthy incident after the carving was complete involves the inscription on the diagonal band running over the Virgin’s torso.  Vasari tells us about the reason for this inscription in one of his passages about the life of Michelangelo:

Here is perfect sweetness in the expression of the head, harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the pulses and veins so wrought, that in truth Wonder herself must marvel that the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute so divinely and so perfectly, in so short a time, a work so admirable; and it is certainly a miracle that a stone without any shape at the beginning should ever have been reduced to such perfection as Nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Such were Michelagnolo’s love and zeal together in this work, that he left his name a thing that he never did again in any other work written across a girdle that encircles the bosom of Our Lady. And the reason was that one day Michelagnolo, entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan.” Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.
Vasari’s Lives of the Artists

This was the only work of Michelangelo to which he signed his name.

The Pieta became famous right after it was carved.  Other artists started looking at it because of its greatness, and Michelangelo’s fame would have spread.  Since the artist lived another six decades after carving the Pieta, he would have witnessed the reception of the work by generations of artists and patrons through much of the sixteenth century.

In more modern times, the Pieta has experienced some colorful events.  In 1964, it was lent to the New York World’s Fair; afterwards, Pope Paul VI said it wouldn’t be lent out again and would remain at the Vatican.  In 1972, a Hungarian-born man (later found to be mentally disturbed) rushed the statue with a hammer and started hitting it, including the left arm of the Virgin, which came off, and her head, breaking her nose and some of her left eye.  Today, you can visit the statue in New St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Further Reading

Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture Michelangelos Pieta, by William E. Wallace

Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534, by Michael Hirst

Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body Michelangelos Pieta, by James Hall


Donatello’s Saint Mark


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Donatello, Saint Mark, c. 1411-1413, marble (copy)

The statue of St. Mark was commissioned by the linen guild, one of the poorer guilds in Florence whose patron was St. Mark.  They decided to hire the sculptor Donatello for the commission, who created a larger than life-size work (it is 7’9” tall).  The work itself was placed into a niche that was already in existence in the building called Orsanmichele, and probably because this meant only the front would be visible, the back side of the statue was not completely carved.

The result of Donatello’s work was profound, to say the least, as he revived the use of the contrapposto stance in freestanding sculpture.  Contrapposto had been employed by many ancient Greek and Roman sculptors, dating back to the Classical period of Greek art beginning around 480 B.C.  After the fall of the Roman empire, however, it was largely forgotten by Europeans in the Middle Ages.  When medieval sculptors depicted the human figure in reliefs (and less frequently, in free-standing works), the figures would often times be given stylized body parts and rigid postures.  Donatello starts to change this in large-scale freestanding sculpture by giving St. Mark a much more natural look through the use of contrapposto.  He would have known about this sculptural device through the trip to Rome that he probably took with Brunelleschi early on in his career.  In Rome, the remains of reliefs and freestanding works would most certainly have been more prevalent than in any other part of Italy (or Europe for that matter), giving artists an opportunity to study them first-hand.

In addition to the use of contrapposto, another ingenious aspect of the St. Mark is the way Donatello anticipated the way the statue would be seen from below.  The niche in Orsanmichele in which the work was originally placed was along the street, a bit above eye-level.  Donatello made St. Mark’s head and hands and torso over-sized or elongated a bit so that they compensated for the angle that people viewed this from.  Donatello was thus taking the viewing angles of the statue into account in his approach, and this is something that other artists would pick up on in the Renaissance.

Donatello St Mark detail Donatellos Saint MarkBecause the guild for which St. Mark was made was the linen guild, Donatello emphasized the garments on the figure.  Here, the cloth covering his body falls over him like it would fall over an actual body with clothing on it.  This way of modeling a body with garments is quite different from the way it had been done at times during the Middle Ages, when artists would depict a body hidden inside a mass of garments.  Here, we can see how St. Mark’s right leg carries the weight and is made column-like for emphasis, but his left knee and leg are clearly detectable under his robe.  Meanwhile, as his left hand holds the Gospel book, his right hand grasps at his side as if he is receiving divine inspiration to write the Gospel.  He stands atop a pillow, which is typically a symbol of holiness; here, however, it also puts some emphasis on his weight and conveys to us the idea that he is a real person because the physical world around him reacts to his body.

This is the first time in the Renaissance that a statue like this is made where garments echo the body’s form like this.  It signals a break from the International Gothic style that preceded it, and helps to usher in a new era of increasingly natural figures carved and cast in life size or larger.