Donatello and the Old Sacristy in the San Lorenzo I

The San Lorenzo: the Old Sacristy

Entrance Old Sacristy right

photo: Ricardalovesmonuments

First we walk to the left transept where the entrance door to the Old Sacristy is. On the days of architecture we had already seen this space which was built by Brunelleschi, but now we are here for the decorations of stucco and the two bronze doors: the work of Donatello (click here for the architecture of the Old Sacristy).

Brunelleschi        Old Sacristy

San Lorenzo Old Sacristy Brunelleschi Donatello
photos: Steven Zucker and Richard Mortel

The Old Sacristy: Donatello’s eight tondi and two bronze doors

The Old Sacristy was commissioned by Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici, the father of Cosimo the Elder, and is dedicated to John the Baptist. Under the dome there are eight tondi of pietra serena: one in the lunette on each wall and one in each pensive. After the construction work by the architect Brunelleschi, the oculi were empty. This was allegedly the intention. The idea to decorate came later. This is nonsense according to Pope-Hennessy (Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Donatello Sculptor’, Abbeville Press, New York/London/ Paris 1993 pp. 162, 165). Like the Pazzi chapel that was built later, the decoration was an essential part of the chapel and planned from the beginning.

San Lorenzo Old Sacristy Dome  interior Brunelleschi
photo: Richard Mortel

Donatello ‘Door of the Apostles’

In his biography about Brunelleschi, Manetti describes a dispute between Brunelleschi and Donatello. When Donatello receives the order for the decorations and the two bronze doors with the recess above it, he sets to work without consulting his friend Filippo Brunelleschi. According to Manetti, the work lacked the excellent forms of Brunelleschi who did not approve the reliefs of Donatello. When Donatello understood Filippo’s disapproval, he became very spiked and disparaging about the work of the architect of the Old Sacristy. Donatello kept spreading his derogatory remarks about Brunelleschi. The architect could not just let that slide, and so Brunelleschi composed some sonnets -some of them are now in circulation- to let the world know that he was not responsible for the porticus or the bronze doors or anything else on the walls between the corner pilasters.

Old Sacristy: Donatello's 'Door of the Apostles'
photo: Steven Zucker
Old Sacristy: Donatello: sopraportas   St. Stephen St. Lawrence
photos: Steven Zucker

Sopraportas St. Stephen and St. Lawrence in situ

Brunelleschi’s complaint is understandable, especially if you look at the decorations above the two bronze doors. The colours, the round arch, the aediculas around bronze doors do not match Brunelleschi’s architecture. Pope-Hennessy even speaks of clumsy aedicas. The stucco work and the colours emphasise the walls. This is something Brunelleschi must have been disgusted about. As we have already seen on the days of architecture, Brunelleschi emphasized the supporting parts by using blue-grey pietra serena. The walls, on the other hand, had to remain white. This way, the walls dissolve as it were, or in other words, matter is deprived of its essential character.


The eight medallions or tondi: four stories about John and four about the evangelists

The medallions with the stories of the apostle John

The problem with the narrative tondi in the pendants is that they are placed from the floor at a height of twelve meters and on a concave wall surface at that. This probably explains the use of colour. With this Donatello hoped to make the tondi more readable. The four large tondi are two meters in diameter. What is great about the Old Sacristy is that despite these two handicaps, the medallions still form a unity and are very convincing perspectively. Yet, and you will notice that when you stand in the Old Sacristy, many details cannot be clearly seen without binoculars. At the second half of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, at a height of twenty metres, all details are clearly visible. However, Michelangelo also had hundreds of meters of surface at his disposal and not a circle with a diameter of only a few meters.

The surface of the tondi was prepared for painting with a mixture of plaster and stone dust. This formed the primer for the colours and the figures were modelled on this. Large parts of the stucco were not pigmented. The stucco was applied damp with the support of a large number of nails, some of which you can still see, such as at the cooking pot in which poor John stands. The plaster was often applied in small parts and then worked with the hands, some fingerprints are still visible. After drying, the plasterwork is worked with a tool to make the figures and details stand out better.

Donatello ‘John and his dream on Patmos’

There are many pictures of the life of John the Evangelist, but one was considered superior in Florence: the one by Giotto in the Peruzzi Chapel (Santa Croce). At Web Gallery of Art you can see these frescoes about John by Giotto. On the right wall, Giotto painted three scenes from the life of John: above the evangelist at Patmos, in the middle the Resurrection of Drusiana and below the Ascension of John. As there were four tondi, Donatello needed a fourth scene. This will be the martyrdom of John outside the Latin Gate: a story from the Legend of Aurea by Jacobus the Voragine.

Old Sacristy Donatello 'John and his dream on Patmos'
photos: Sailko and Steven Zucker

John and his dream on Patmos

Old Sacristy Donatello  'John and his dream on Patmos'
photo: Steven Zucker


In this tondo you see John as he sleeps with a book and an inkwell next to him. Above him is the vision: God and the angels blowing the winds. The Lord holds a crescent in His Hand. A woman and a child are threatened by the dragon that comes flying in. Below, left behind the trees, four angels are blowing the winds. The head of John is turned backwards as if it were an illustration of what can be read in Revelation 1:10-11: ‘[…] and I heard a loud voice behind me, like a trumpet, saying: That which ye see, write it in a book, and send it to the seven churches […]’

Christ is not represented frontally by Donatello as it was in Giotto’s case. By using a clear horizon for a perspectively correct representation of all narrative scenes, the round form is essentially rendered void. Depth is suggested by the trees that decrease in size on the left side as they are placed further in the background. This is the first time that a round shape shows the correct effect of perspective. Ghiberti used a more obvious form for the Paradise Gate: a square that is significantly wider than high, in other words, a horizontal format.

Resurrection of Drusiana

Old Sacristy Donatello Resurrection of Drusiana
photo: Steven Zucker
Old Sacristy Donatello detail: Resurrection of Drusiana
photo:s Sailko and tondo, situ: Steven Zucker

Resurrection of Drusiana      Tondo     In situ

After Patmos, John returned to Ephesus after Domitian’s revocation of the death sentence. According to the Legend of Aurea, the crowd called out to him: Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. When he entered the city, he saw a procession with the remains of a woman named Drusiana, who had long been his most devoted friend.

In Giotto’s fresco ‘Resurrection of Drusiana‘ in the Peruzzi chapel, the stretcher is in the middle of and parallel to the image plane. To the right is a group that is mourning and to the left is John with a number of people praying on their knees near him. Donatello’s tondo is quite different. The first impression is one of a geometric composition in which the space is clearly divided by horizontals and verticals. The reactions to the miraculous resurrection of Drusiana can be seen in the different gestures and facial expressions of those present. The stretcher is placed diagonally and centrally in the image plane. John has raised up his right arm, a blessing gesture, and near him are two kneeling and begging figures. In the foreground, to the right, a boy runs away to trump the big news he has just seen. The two figures in the middle of the foreground seem to comment on the miracle because of their gestures. Pope-Hennessy sees this work as one of the highlights of Donatello’s narrative art: the superlative comes when the evangelist is taken up into heaven.

and the ascension of John

Old Sacristy Donatello The torture of John in boiling oil
Old Sacristy Donatello detail: Boiling of John

Boiling of John

In the next scene John is standing just outside the gates of Latina in a cauldron with oil. At the bottom and parallel to the image plane, soldiers climb a staircase. This motif has clearly impressed the painter Ghirlandaio. He also used such a staircase in one of his frescoes in the Sassetti chapel as we will see on the days of painting.

The ascension to heaven of John        In situ

Old Sacristy Donatello The ascension to heaven of John
photos: Steven Zucker

Ascension to heaven

The ascension to heaven of John as painted by Giotto was widely admired. As a young boy and artist in training, Michelangelo made another drawing of this (Louvre). According to Voragine, John was ninety-nine years old and the Lord called: ‘Come to me, my beloved one, for the time has come for you to sit at my table with your brothers.’ John stood up to respond to this call. But Jesus said: ‘No, you cannot come to me on Sunday.’ The next day a crowd had gathered in the church. John had dug his grave next to the altar and saw that the earth was being brought out by some of those present. He stood in the grave, raised his hands to the heaven and spoke: ‘You invited me to the table, thank you for inviting me.’ After this prayer, John is surrounded by a blinding light. When the light stopped, John had disappeared and the grave was filled with manna. It is said that the manna is still coming from the grave as if it were a rich and inexhaustible source. This tondo also has a sleek geometric frame. Below the centre, a pilaster diverts the eye to John who rises to heaven. The grave, which Giotto does paint, is excluded by Donatello. Considering the strong bottom view, this is not possible either. The man on the far right is probably the father of Cosimo the Elder, Giovanni di Bicci, or Cosimo himself.

Old Sacristy Donatello The ascension to heaven of John detail

The special perspective gives the dramatic event an extra charge. You look up as if you are just a tiny worm, there is no foreground. Janson even cites the twentieth-century artist, the Chirico, who used his strange perspectives to evoke certain emotions in the viewer. The story of John in the Legend of Aurea ends with the ascent of John and Christ who welcomes him. Donatello has placed this miraculous event at the very top of the picture plane, it occupies only one fifth of the whole. The rest, four fifths, is filled with the astonished reactions of the spectators and the complex architecture of this Ascension. Such a composition goes against all usual conventions.

The narrative scenes are not only an experiment in perspective, but above all a means to convey a story credibly to the viewer. Just like Masaccio had already done this successfully in the Brancacci chapel, Donatello also succeeds miraculously.

The apostles in the lunettes

The four tondi in the lunettes with the apostles have the advantage that the wall is flat and not concave as with the pendants.

Old Sacristy interior dome Brunelleschi
photo: Richard Mortel

Donatello moves away from the usual way in which the apostles were represented in Florence. An example of the common way of depicting can be seen at the first few doors that Ghiberti had made for the Baptistery. Apostles were not depicted as real individuals, but rather as standard types. Thus Ghiberti depicted his apostle John as an old meditative man with a beard and largely bald.

John Apostle       In situ

Old Sacristy Donatello John Apostle
photo: Steven Zucker
Old Sacristy Donatello Old Sacristy Donatello detail: Matthew apostle
photo: Steven Zucker

Matthew tondo              In situ

Donatello, however, gave his apostles individual traits. Thus, the skinny Matthew gets powerful features and a short beard and so he looks very different from the frontally depicted Matthew by Ghiberti. According to Pope-Hennessy, the source for this new approach to Donatello can be found in Byzantine manuscripts (Pope-Hennessy, J., Donatello Sculptor, Abbeville Press, New York/ London/ Paris 1993 185). Presumably, advisors of Cosimo de Elder pointed Donatello to Byzantine miniatures.

Ghiberti’s (Matthew) compositions are strongly vertical, Donatello’s compositions are horizontal, just like his narrative tondos. The chairs and desks are placed on horizontal floors that extend over the entire image plane. Such compositions can also be found in Byzantine manuscripts, as well as the emphasis on all kinds of details such as the chair or the lectern. Many details such as the vase or the seat can be traced back to Roman motifs.

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