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Visitors to the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo in Florence can gaze up in awe at Donatello’s over-life-sized sculpture of St John the Evangelist.
Now, if you were going to represent one of Christ's apostles in marble, this is surely the way to do it and at 210cm, its effect is strong and immediate. It is clear that the subject is a man of great importance.
We can see he isn't a soldier and he doesn't much resemble a statesman. There is something of the philosopher about him though and once one knows the truth, one can only applaud the aptness of the presentation.
No one knows exactly when the statue was created; 1410-1411 are popular options, although invoices for the work dated as late as 1415 have been found. It was originally commissioned for the façade of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore but was moved into the main body of the cathedral in 1587.
St John the Evangelist
Evangelists were a popular subject for artists during the Renaissance and John, purported by some to be the writer of the fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation, was no exception. John was influential in the development of the early church in Jerusalem and lived to an old age; he was the only apostle not to have been martyred. The Byzantine tradition was to portray John as a beardless youth and these early depictions are redolent of works depicting Socrates. Donatello, in his presentation of John as a wise old man, departed from this tradition.
Donatello's commission in respect of St John the Evangelist was one of a number, with the resulting works destined to be positioned in and around the Cathedral. Other sculptures would depict, a Bearded Prophet, Beardless Prophet, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Jeremiah and Habakkuk. These works followed the more traditional presentational mores; St John was different. Donatello was still a relatively young artist when he sculptured St John but already he was making his influence felt by transitioning from the predominating International Gothic style towards Naturalism and in doing so anticipating Michelangelo.
A Change in Artistic Style
International Gothic blended Late Gothic and Early Renaissance idioms of decoration and ornament but with pictorial representations that appeared flat due to the lack of perspective. A more natural presentation of the subject, grounded in solid landscape forms are features of Naturalism and can be seen in the works of Uccello and Fra Angelico. One can also start to see the development of perspective. Inevitably these stylistic developments would be carried over into a sculpture style that was still heavily influenced by antiquity, particularly the Roman style. That can be seen clearly in Donatello's earlier work David, sculptured in marble in 1408-1409 (not to be confused with the later more controversial bronze produced in the 1440s).
Persistence of the Roman Style
The Roman style is evident too in the grandiose manner in which the artist has presented St John. The apostle's face, shoulders and chest follow the idealised Roman norms, whereas hands, legs and folds of cloth are more naturalistic, sculptured and in tune with developing humanism. It is a magical transformation that breathed life into the work. The old sage sits in his chair in dignified contemplation, casting his eyes to heaven as though experiencing a vision whilst a very realistic, if at first glance, over-sized hand rests on a large tome, likely an early scripture or possibly a reference to the scrolls usually associated with this particular saint, in reference to his writings.
A Word about Perspective
Viewers to the Cathedral would have to look up at the statue. To compensate for this, Donatello deployed his knowledge of perspective, elongating the torso and shortening the legs whilst creating a 3-D “repoussoir” effect around the hands, making them appear, as one commentator said, like the image on a View-Master slide. One school of thought claims that the best way to look at St John is by lying on one's back and looking up, only then will one see the work in a way that will provide a proper appreciation of early renaissance notions.
Donatello was born Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi in Firenze in 1386, he died there 80 years later. He is regarded as the most influential artist of the 15th Century, influencing almost every painter and sculptor that came after him, particularly those working in Florence and Padua. He is regarded as the founder of modern sculpture and was the first to sculpt in bronze; the first to produce a nude since the Classical Era. It is in his early works, such as, St John the Evangelist, that he starts to break away from the iconography of Gothic Internationalism and introduce greater realism and the depiction of human emotion as can be seen in the life-like face of the dead Christ in Crucifixion, created, some scholars believe, at about the same time as St John the Evangelist.
In addition to “repoussoir,” Donatello was a pioneer of a number of techniques, including Figura Serpentinata, which attempts to create the appearance of movement in stone. Schiacciato, translated as flattened out or shallow relief, is the technique used to create a 3-dimensional effect on a flat surface and was crucial in the development of perspective during the 15th Century. Donatello employs it to great effect in St George and the Dragon and the Feast of Herod.
Artists Donatello Influenced
Donatello has a partnership with Michelozzo and they collaborated on a series of works, including the tomb of Pope John XXIII. Toward the end of his life, Donatello took Bertoldo di Giovanni as a pupil; Bertoldo later went on to teach Michelangelo. He worked with Brunelleschi and Michellozzo on the tomb of Bartolemo Aragazzi and his statue of the military leader Gatemelata on his horse, set the standard for future equestrian sculptures and directly influenced Andrea del Verrocchio. In teaching Bertolodo di Giovanni, it would not be too presumptuous to claim that Donatello influenced the great Michelangelo and by so doing all those who came after him.