Commissioned in 1460, it was completed after his death in 1466 by his pupil Bertoldo di Giovanni, and remains in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence. A bronze relief, it depicts scenes from before, during, and after the Crucifixion of Christ. These commence with the Flagellation and conclude with the Burial.
The Pulpit of the Passion is one of Donatello's most mysterious works. This is because the type of pulpit was long obsolete in the progressive, increasingly secular Florence of the fifteenth century.
It is also because of Donatello's overt engagement with humanistic themes, such as suffering, which at that time were not commonly found in ecclesiastical art. As such, the pulpit has captivated the imagination of scholars and visitors, and remains one of the most important examples of the sculptor’s work.
The pulpit of the passion is constructed in Donatello's signature style: rilievo schiacciato, or ‘flattened relief’. This is a technique where the surface modelling involves very fine, almost pencil-like carving, which is so shallow that it is almost pictorial in quality. It was a form that Donatello had begun to develop in the 1430s, and which by the end of his life had become his signature style. The aim of schiacciato is realism, a crucial area of development in the transition from the medieval to the modern.
The pulpit of the passion is also notable for the use of one-point-perspective. Brunelleschi is traditionally attributed with discovering ‘perspective’, and the earliest known examples of one-point-perspective date to 1423. However, it was Donatello who carved the new invention into a new level of mastery.
The aim of one-point-perspective was to achieve realism on two levels. Firstly, in terms of depth. As can clearly be seen in the panels of the pulpit, the viewer is invited to look into the scene as though looking into a small room, even though the relief itself is almost entirely flat. Secondly, there is realism of the subjects, and particularly their emotions.
The passion therefore presents perfect subject matter for exploring this technique. The journey includes the extremities of human emotion: anguish, pain, doubt, and grief, each of which is a challenge for one-point-perspective.
Although the reliefs are generally presented in classical poses, it is in the perspective-based subtleties that Donatello translates them through time and into immediacy. With the one-point-relief creating vivid windows into the turbulence of the unfolding passion, this pulpit is an illustration of two of the most important techniques of the era.
Donatello was both prolific and proficient in a wide range of materials, from majestic marble to humble wood. However, it is in his bronzes that the subtlety of his work truly shines. The pulpit of the passion is made from bronze alloy - a slightly softer material than pure bronze - over a wooden inlay.
Bronze alloy provided an ideal material for rilievo schiacciato. The ease with which it can be finely etched allows for the enhanced complexity and detail that Donatello sought. In particular, bronze enables the interplay of light and shadow, both of which are crucial for enabling the schiacciato to create a life-like three-dimensional effect.
This is augmented by the setting inside San Lorenzo. It is often said that Donatello’s work looked unimpressive when in the workshop, but with the correct lighting would assume a different form. This is very evident in the pulpit of the passion, which manages to capture fluidity of movement as well as depth perspective, a feature that is intensified by shimmering candlelight.
Although the subject matter is biblical in nature, Donatello was working at a time when the shift towards humanism was well established. The vogue was therefore moving away from the objective scholasticism that had flourished during the medieval era. Instead, the focus was realigning on the question of man’s place in the order of nature, and, more directly, on the human experience itself. As such, rather than portray the passion as a linear narrative, Donatello infuses it with the depths of human emotion.
Donatello had first forayed into the realm of the historical figure as a human being in one of his earliest masterpieces, St John the Evangelist (1408-15). By the end of his career, the pulpit of the passion sees the culmination of this examination of the spiritual dimension of experience. In the scene of Christ before the Caiaphas, for example, the crowd of solders convey a turbulence of emotion as they grapple with the complexity of the unfolding events.
In the Deposition, the characters capture the chaotic onslaught of grief. With some figures downcast, their faces shrouded in shadow, and others tearing at their hair in anguish, the reliefs convey not a static response, but rather the deep spectrum of suffering. In this way, Donatello engages with multiple themes relating to the human condition.
Much speculation surrounds the sources for the pulpit. The Church had a long lost custom of using such objects as a point of focus during Easter, but this was long before Donatello’s time. It is therefore not clear whether this pulpit were ever intended to be anything more than decorative and, if so, what its artistic intention was. It is therefore likely that there are additional layers of thematic meaning that future minds will expound.
Related artists and works
The pulpit of the passion is one of a pair of pulpits. The twin pulpit depicts the Resurrection, and was constructed simultaneously with the Passion. Both are currently housed in the Basilica. Some controversy surrounds their commission, purpose, and assembly. Both were certainly moved during the seventeenth century, which has added to the questions regarding their thematic agenda.
Both pulpits underwent a lengthy restoration between 2010 and 2017. This aimed to repair some of the damage inflicted by well-meaning caretakers of the past, as well as carrying out various tests and explorations. In particular, there have been question marks surrounding the work of the various artists involved. This information is expected to be released in due course, and may open new pathways for future scholarship on questions such as materials, themes, and influence.