Brunelleschi and Donatello: crucifixes and two tabernacles

Two life-size crucifixes one in the Santa Maria Novella (Gondi chapel) and the other in the Santa Croce (Bardi chapel): a comparison.

Santa Maria Novella Gondi chapel

Santa Maria Novella: Gondi chapel Crucifix Brunelleschi
photo: Steven Zucker

Brunelleschi ‘Crucifix’ 1410-15     

Vasari describes the struggle between the two artists, Donatello and Brunelleschi, both in ‘The life of Brunelleschi’ and in ‘The life of Donetello’
“[…] Donatello wanted to hear from Filippo [Brunelleschi] what he thought of it; but he regretted it, because Filippo’s answer was that he had hung a farmer on the cross; the origin of the saying: take a piece of wood and make one yourself, as I will tell in detail in the Life of Donatello. That is why Filippo – who never got angry at what they told him, even though they tried to get him so angry – remained silent for months and made a crucifix as big as Donatello’s; this was so well designed and executed with so much care and craftsmanship that when Donatello, ignorant of his friend’s occupation, suddenly saw it, on a day when the other person had allegedly sent him forward by mistake, dropped the eggs and other things he wore in his apron for their joint lunch, and was ecstatic over the ingenious and artful way in which Filippo made the legs, torso and arms of the named figure. It was such a unity that he, Donatello, acknowledged defeat and and praised Filippo’s work and called it a miracle. It is now set up in the Santa Maria Novella, between the Strozzi chapel and that of the Bardi da Vernia, and it is still highly praised by the modernists.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I blz. 160-161 (originele editie 1568).

Brunelleschi ‘Crucifix’
photos: Steven Zucker

Brunelleschi ‘Crucifix’ Side

Brunelleschi ‘Crucifix’
photos: Sailko

The crucifix of Brunelleschi hangs to the left of the main chapel in Santa Maria Novella and to the right we have Donatello’s Christ in Santa Croce. Both crucifixes were probably made between 1410 and 1415. The two friends and artists, Brunelleschi and Donatello, were at that time working together on a Hercules for the buttresses of the Duomo. In his, ‘Libro’, Antonio Billi describes the crucifix of Donatello in the Santa Croce. Crucifixes were often unsigned and many were made. According to Pope-Hennessy, but also Janson, there is no doubt that the crucifix in the Santa Croce was really made by Donatello (Janson, H.W., ‘The Sculpture of Donatello’, Princeton University Press, Princeton/New Jersey 1963 9; Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Donatello Sculptor’, Abbeville Press, New York/ London/ Paris 1993 27). The body is heavy, only the nails in the hands and the footrest prevent Christ from not falling off the cross.

Donatello ‘Crucifixion’       Side      Torso and Face

Donatello 'Crucifixion'
photos: Sailko

The Christ of Donatello is very similar to the Christ on the cross that Lorenzo Ghiberti made for the first few doors of the Baptistery. For example, there are clear similarities in the posture of the body, the long lectern cloth, the hair and the beard. The torso of the Christ of Donatello appears true to nature, the one by Ghiberti has a predominantly decorative one. From the way in which Donatello depicted the body, you can see that unlike Ghiberti, he paid a lot of attention to anatomical details. Is that why Brunelleschi perhaps spoke of ‘a farmer on the cross’?

Santa Croce Bardi chapel Donatello Crucifix      Zoom out      Zoom in

 Santa Croce Bardi chapel Donatello Crucifix
photos: Ben Rimmer and Elias Rovielo

Nevertheless, a closer comparison of the two life-sized figures reveals that Donatello’s Christ is more graceful in relation to Brunelleschi’s. Brunelleschi’s knees bend abruptly to the right. He does not use loincloth, but real genitals are not visible either. Michelangelo later depicted his Christ on the cross Casa Buonarroti; today: again in the sacristy of the Santo Spirito) with genitals.

Donatello’s Christ on the cross hangs above the altar in the Bardic Chapel. The Christ figure on the cross was occasionally placed on a corpse or at Easter on a grave as part of religious ceremonies. If the sculpture is later placed in the Bardi chapel, the movable arms are redundant. In the sixteenth century, the hinges on the arms were not removed during a restoration. It is unclear why. The Christ in the Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce consists of five different parts. For example, the arms of the ‘peasant Christ’ have been made separate. After all, the thickness is determined by the tree. On top of that, cracks or tears can quickly appear if a part is too thick.

You have to see for yourself if you agree with the judgment that the ‘peasant Christ’ is surpassed by the Christ of Brunelleschi. After having seen the figure of Christ in the left transept, we now see another work by Donatello in the right aisle of the Santa Croce.

Donatello 'The Miraculous Crucifix'
photo: Didier Descouens

Donatello ‘The Miraculous Crucifix’

In 2008 another crucifix of Donatello was discovered. Not in Florence, but in the Santa Maria dei Servi in Padua (Wikipedia). The discovery of a handwritten note in an edition of Vasari’s Lives made it clear that there was a crucifix of Donatello in the church of Servi. Much later the statue was covered with a thin layer that resembled bronze. During the restoration the original layer reappeared.

The Cavalcanti Tabernacle in the Santa Croce

Donatello ‘Cavalcanti Tabernacle’      In situ

The tabernacle was probably made for the family Cavalcanti. The whole is carved from macigno: a local sandstone. This stone is quite soft and only suitable for an interior where the material is not exposed to weather influences. The tabernacle that we now see is one of the few works of art by Donatello that has remained in its original place. Announcements were a grateful subject for art criticism in that time. For example, Leonardo da Vinci complained that in painting the angel seemed like an invader, as if he were trying to work Mary out of the window; and that she was frequently depicted as if she was about to jump out of the window in extreme despair. This is not the case with Donatello now. Mary is partly turning away from the messenger, yet the angel and Mary look at each other. At the same time, however, the gesture of her right hand seems to accept the happy message of the angel. Mary’s face has already overcome fear, as opposed to her body, which betrays an attitude of fear and flight (photos: Sailko and Steven Zucker).

Donatello 'Cavalcanti Tabernacle'  detail Angel
photos: Steven Zucker


Donatello chooses the moment when the angel has just descended, as the position of his wings betrays. Gabriel’s mouth is slightly opened and he seems to utter the words of Luke 1: 28: ‘Rejoice, blessed one, the Lord is with you.’ At that moment Mary was holding the holy book, which she read, at least according to Saint Bernard. Mary would have just been reading the prediction of Isaiah. Who saith thus Isaiah 7: 14 Therefore the Lord Himself gives you a Sign: Behold, the young woman is pregnant, and she shall bring forth a son, and ye shall give him the name of Immanuel. This was referred to as a prefiguration: a prediction made in the Old Testament and later fulfilled in the New Testament. We see all four stages that Luke described: the arrival of the angel, then the announcement of Gabriel: ‘Be greeted’ or ‘Rejoice’, then the fear and anxiety: ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary’ and lastly the acceptance: ‘Behold the maidservant of the lord, for me it was done according to thy word.’

This method of representation and Donatello’s interpretation are completely unique in the Florentine tradition. Usually the dove was depicted as a symbol of the Holy Spirit with its golden rays, the lily representing the virginity of Mary, the hortus conclusus and finally God. This can also be seen in Ghiberti’s, ‘Announcement‘, at his first few doors to the Baptistery where God, the dove and the lily can be seen.

The Annunciation

Donatello 'Cavalcanti Tabernacle'  detail: Annunciation
photo: Steven Zucker

According to Kauffmann, the hortus conclusus would not be visible in the tabernacle of Cavalcanti, but it would be the porta conclusa. Behind this closed gate lies the hortus conclusus, as is mentioned in Ezekiël 44 : 2. The closed garden was the symbol of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of Christ. If you look closely, you see a seam running in the middle between the angel and Mary. This is caused by the fact that the entire relief is carved out of two blocks, which come together here. It is unclear why Donatello does not make this porta conclusa clear as a real door for the viewer. According to Janson its represents nothing more than a wooden back wall, which, like Mary’s chair, is decorated with vegetable motifs and inlaid with gold (The thesis of Kauffmann is referenced by Janson, along with his argumentation explaining why he disagrees with this proposition: Janson, H.W., ‘The Sculpture of Donatello,’ Princeton University Press, Princeton/New Jersey 1963, 106).

Mary       Gabriel and Mary      Mary’s face

The interior in which the Annunciation takes place is decorated with stylised foliage. You get the impression that the space behind the pilasters continues, where the wing of the angel and the left hip and elbow of Mary are placed behind the pilaster. The angel and Mary are cut into high relief, but the background with the figures in the foreground each come from one block. The upper body of Mary is completely detached from the background.
Both the angel and Mary are strongly classical, especially their faces. The strongly idealised head of Mary is something that is not often found in Donatello’s work. Michelangelo always idealised his figures, but he was strongly influenced by the golden age of Greek sculpture: the fifth century BC. The coat of Mary looks strongly Hellenistic. The way in which the garment is carved clearly shows that a body is underneath her garment.

Donatello 'Cavalcanti Tabernacle'  detail: Mary
photos:  jean louis mazieres

The protruding pediment with curls is derived from classical architecture, but also from urns. The frames are a mixture of all kinds of influences and own ideas. The capitals with the double heads can partly be traced back to Roman baths. The curly bases on which the pilasters rest also have their origin in urns. The base on which the relief rests is derived from the cornice of the temple of Vespasian.

Donatello 'Cavalcanti Tabernacle'  detail: Putti’s fear of falling off
photos: Sailko

Putti’s fear of falling off

At the top of the whole, on and next to the segment shaped pediment, six terracotta putti are placed. These were made in 1433 after Donatello’s return from Rome. The two putti on the right were recovered in 1900. The putti originally held a wreath of flowers and fruit, a garland, through which they were connected. Vasari describes the top of the Cavalcantial altarpiece with the lively putti as follows: ‘[…] and crowned with a quarter circle to which he added six putti that hold up some festoons and that seem to secure themselves by holding each other firmly, as if they are afraid of heights.’ The putti’s fear of falling off was not entirely unjustified as you can see. The work is not an early work as Vasari writes, but was made between 1428 and 1432, Donatello was at least forty-four years old by then.

The altarpiece originally had a predella painted on panels with scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas by Giovanni di Francesco, which can now be seen in the Casa Buonarroti. We now walk to the San Lorenzo to see the work of Donatello and Desiderio da Settignano

Desiderio da Settignano ‘Tabernacle of sacraments’ c. 1461

We now walk to the right aisle, where you can see the work of Settignano (San Lorenzo) just before the celebration. 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 (Web Gallery of Art).

Desiderio da Settignano ‘Tabernacle of sacraments'
photos: Sailko

Ecce Homo        Zoom in

Desiderio da Settignano ‘Tabernacle of sacraments' detail: Ecce Homo
photos: Sailko

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.  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.

Continuation Florence day 3: Donatello and the Old Sacristy in the San Lorenzo I