Donatello’s pulpits in the San Lorenzo

Donatello’s pulpits         Zoom out
Passion Pulpit Left south side            Resurrection Pulpit Right north side

San Lorenzo: two pulpits Donatello
Web Gallery of Art and zoom: Richard Mortel
Donatello 'Portrait' 17th century, Uffizi

Donatello ‘Portrait’ 17th century, Uffizi

The pulpits are the last work by Donatello. Vasari writes the following about this: “He also designed the bronze pulpits, showing the Passion of Christ: a work of great strength and ingenuity, well composed from an abundance of figuresvand buildings; since Donatello was too old to finish them, they were completed by his pupil Bertoldo, who truly brought them to perfection.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel 1 blz. 201 (originele editie 1568).

Passion Pulpit

If you compare the two pulpits with each other, or the reliefs, you will see remarkable differences. For example, the left pulpit is fairly homogeneous, but the same cannot be said for the right one. The reliefs on the long side of the right pulpit protrude in a quite unsightly fashion at the ends. It has long been thought that the two pulpits originally belonged together, but this does not appear to be the case. The fifteen reliefs (two from the seventeenth century and with a wooden core covered with bronze) were not designed as one work of art. In the 1970s, art historians Herzner and Beccherucci discovered that the reliefs of the right pulpit were originally made for the tomb of Cosimo the Elder (Herzer, V., ‘Die Kanzeln Donatellos in San Lorenzo’, Münchener Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, dritte Folge, XXXIII, 1972 pp. 101-164; Beccherucci, L., Donatello; i pergami di S Lorenzo, Florence, 1979; both Bennett & Wilkins and Pope-Hennessy point to this: Bennett, A., Wilkins, D.G., ‘Donatello’, Phaidon, Oxford 1984 13; Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Italian Renaissance Sculpture’volume II, Phaidon, London 1996 (2000 paperback edition) 361; Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Donatello Sculptor’, Abbeville Press, New York/ London/ Paris 1993 294).

Donatello Passion Pulpit San Lorenzo
photo: Sailko

F. l. t. r. Christ in the limbo         Resurrection       Ascension of Christ

Donatello Resurrection pulpit:  Christ in the limbo Resurrection  Ascension Christ
photos: Sailko

Other remarkable differences between the reliefs are the unequal heights and the number of scenes. For example, the long side of one pulpit has two narrative reliefs – at least on the side of the nave – while the other has three. In addition, the frames have little in common. In one pulpit, wild horses are visible at the corners of the frieze, while the other pulpit lacks this. Moreover, as you could read above, the work was not finished by Donatello. He had four assistants. We know two of them: Bertoldo di Giovanni, who would later train the young Michelangelo as a sculptor, and a fellow named Bellano. As we discuss and look at the reliefs we will also try to find out which reliefs have a clearly different style and differ from the way Donatello used to work.

Martyrdom of Laurentius

Donatello: pulpit Martyrdom of Laurentius

Some scenes like ‘Martyrdom Laurentius’ for the tomb of Cosimo the Elder are designed in such a way that they have to be seen from above. The reliefs with these six scenes are, as you can see when you stand at the right pulpit, placed too high, so unfortunately the height and distance make them difficult to observe.

The pulpit with the Passion of Christ

The Crucifixion       The Lamentation of Christ

Donatello pulpit  Passion Christ: Crucifixion Lamentation

First, we look at the pulpit on the south side that deals with the Passion of Christ and ends with the burial. Two stories can be seen on the long side of the nave: the Crucifixion and the Lamentation. These reliefs are made from a bottom view. The difference between the Crucifixion and the Lamentation is striking. In the Crucifixion, Christ is central and we no longer look down, but we are at the same level as the feet of Christ on the cross. The crosses are placed parallel to the image plane. The crucified figures are coarse and modelled with little nuance. According to Pope-Hennessy, it is likely that no model of Donatello was used for this, but rather it is a work of Bellano.

Lamentation      Zoom out

Much more interesting is the Lamentation or Descent from the Cross to the right of the Crucifixion. In the Lamentation, the three crosses were placed at an angle of 45 degrees on the image plane and largely cut off. In the middle is the ladder with which Christ was removed from the cross. The two thieves are strangely cut off: the thief on the left just above the knee and the other one has no visible head. As viewers we have only a very limited view of what is happening before us. Such cuts go against the principles of the Renaissance. 

Donatello pulpit Lamentation: detail Christ Mary
photos: Sailko
Donatello pulpit Lamentation: detail 'Hands in despair'
photos: Sailko

Hands in despair

In this Lamentation at the bottom of the cross, Donatello places a strong emphasis on the whole range of human reactions to death. There are three women who walk with their hands in the air, hands in despair and a woman on the far right is clutching her head. These women are based on the classic images of Menades. The faces of the women, including Mary, depicted in the centre near Christ, are largely covered by their headscarves. As far as the latter is concerned, Donatello is not only influenced by the remains of antiquity, but also by the classical texts of Pliny Timanthes, Cicero, Quintilianus and the text of a contemporary of Donatello: Alberti. Who writes in his Della Pittura: Menelaus, he could not find a good way to show an expression of his desperate father: so he covered his head with a cloth, leaving it to the viewer to think about the grief this father would have.

Exhausted by emotions       Cosimo and his wife

At the bottom right lies a figure that is completely exhausted by emotions. This figure is based on the reliefs of classical river gods. On the right, by the ladder, an old man with a beard, Nicodemus, stares in disbelief at the nails of Christ that he holds in his hand. Through the ladder, behind Mary, John can be seen with his head turned away from the dead Christ. To the left of John on the other side of the cross stands the man who commissioned these reliefs: Cosimo the Old. The lady to his left with a veil is his wife.

In the lower central part, the composition is very quiet and we see Christ and Mary. Maria’s headscarf is highly three-dimensional in design – high relief – and also well-polished, giving Mary a shadow over her face. The grief of Christ’s mother is hidden from the viewer, further stimulating the viewer’s imagination.

Donatello pulpit Lamentation: detail 'Exhausted by emotions'
photos: Sailko

Two Descents of the Cross: a comparison

A comparison of Donatello’s Lamentation (descent from the cross ) with a painted Descent from the Cross by Fra Angelico, as Bennett and Wilkins do, who wrote a monograph on Donatello, is very illustrative. This shows that although Donatello is of course a Renaissance artist, he also has a unique individual style. On the days of painting we will return to this in the monastery of San Marco where we will see the Descent from the Cross of Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico ‘Deposition from the Cross’ detail          Pala di Santa Trinità

Fra Angelico ‘Deposition from the Cross’ detail 
photos: Sailko and Web Gallery of Art

Donatello’s personal view of the crucifixion is decisive and emotions are central. Donatello’s composition is impressive, but certainly not beautiful. Fra Angelico made a weighted and balanced composition of his Descent from the Cross. Moreover, he uses beautiful colours, a view through a landscape and there is no question of torn emotions. The viewer’s eye can escape, but Donatello’s Descent from the Cross does not offer the same.

Fra Angelico ‘Deposition from the Cross’ detail: Christ

Fra Angelico ‘Descent from the Cross’      Donatello ‘Lamentation’

With the exception of the foreground, the Lamentation has a rough surface, this contributes to the overall mood. Fra Angelico’s Descent from the cross is perfectly finished, no brushstroke to see, soft pleasant colours, elegant postures and certainly no hysterical women. The quattrocento greatly appreciated craftsmanship, elegance and a good finish. Very different from Donatello’s: his horses with their riders in the relief of the Lamentation resemble clay sketches rather than a completed work of art. According to Baccio Bandinelli (a contemporary of Vasari) there were many errors to be seen in the reliefs of the pulpit. On the rather flat background in the Lamentation, horses can be seen in low relief without it becoming clear what these horses stand on. Bandinelli attributed this shortcoming to Donatello’s old age and his bad eyes. Vasari also writes that Donatello, due to his age, could no longer complete the reliefs himself. Contrary to the foreground, the background had not yet been worked out. The foreground is likely to have been completed by Bertoldo.

We cast another glance at the scene where Christ stands before Pilate on the east side of the pulpit. Here you see Christ before Caiaphas on your right and Pilate on your left. Both scenes are again shown in bottom view. The background continues with both scenes and consists of a large hall with barrel vaults.

In situ

The column in the middle in front of the pillar resembles the Trajan’s column with its long spiralling relief band. The whole is strongly reminiscent of Donatello’s earlier relief in Padua, the Miracle of the Donkey. The figure below and in the middle in front of the column with the right hand at his forehead is probably Longinus, this is where the lines of perspective meet. Pilate on his throne stretches his arm out to Christ as if he is calling him to speak. Directly behind Pilate stands his wife: she tries to persuade her husband not to kill Christ. Slightly higher than the woman stands a younger man with a double face, a Janus head, with a water basin. We’ve seen this before at Donatello, on the corners of the predella of his recess at the Orsanmichele. The recess for which he made the Louis of Toulouse, but where later the disbelieving Thomas meets Christ was standing. In this bronze relief the meaning of the double head is obvious. Pilate will of course use the water that the boy with the Janus head brings to wash his hands after the verdict. Christ stands in the middle and his face is not visible.

The pulpit with the resurrection of Christ

We will limit ourselves to three reliefs: one on the short side: Three Mary’s at the grave on the west side and two on the long side at the side of the nave: the Limbo of hell and the Resurrection of Christ from his grave.

F. l. t. r. Christ in the limbo         Resurrection       Ascension of Christ

Donatello Resurrection pulpit:  Christ in the limbo Resurrection  Ascension Christ
photo’s: Sailko

Three Mary’s at the grave

Donatello’s composition is based on a 1447 fresco by Andrea del Castagno in Sant Apollonia. We will take a closer look at this mural on the days of painting. To make a clearer distinction between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion above it, Castagno painted a separate room with red tiles. Donatello has translated this principle into bronze.

The bronze structure really sticks out here, creating a real three-dimensional space in which the figures are placed. This way, the whole thing literally comes to the viewer, thus making a big impact.

Donatello pulpit Resurrection detail: 'Three Mary’s at the grave'

Women at the Tomb       Sleeping soldiers

A little to the left of the middle is a sarcophagus: the grave of Christ. In the background you can still see trees with their crown. The three women you see on the left are: Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. They have the herbs to embalm Jesus in their hands. The figure at the back is the angel who, according to Mark 16: 6-7 spoke unto the women with the words: Be not appalled, Jesus seeks ye, the Nazarene, the crucified. He is resurrected, He is not here … There is no optimistic mood or joy because the Lord has risen, but fear, amazement, fear and alienation are what mark the three women. One woman – behind the angel – looks hysterically into the empty grave. The middle woman looks incredulously at the angel pointing at the grave and holds her hand around the pillar, afraid of fainting. The composition is asymmetrical, the most important event is only shown on the left. Here Donatello again deviates strongly from how an artist should work according to the generally prevailing views in the Renaissance.

Donatello pulpit Resurrection detail: 'Three Mary’s at the grave'

The Limbo of Hell, the Resurrection of Christ and Ascensionc

The three scenes on the front, Christ in Limbo, Resurrection and Ascension, are made from a low perspective. These three events are forged into a unity by the background, the continuous architecture. The four walls that emerge clearly delineate the stories depicted.

Christ in Limbo      The devil on the roof

Donatello pulpit Resurrection detail:  'Christ in Limbo'

The relief that precedes the Resurrection is the Liberation from limbo. The latter takes place after the Crucifixion and Tombing and before the Resurrection. In Limbo, in which Christ descends to free the prisoners from the devil, you see in the middle a Christ standing bent forward. Satan is clearly impressed and steps back in panic. John the Baptist standing in front of the protruding wall has stretched out his right hand to greet the liberator.

Like the three Marys who visit the grave, from an iconographical perspective, the Resurrection is highly innovative because it is neither cheerful nor heroic. The Christ does not make a victorious impression, rather, it does the opposite. Christ laboriously drags himself out of his grave. He is still suffering from the crucifixion, which is unique in the history of art.

Two resurrections: a comparison between Donatello and Castagno

Bennett and Wilkins, who wrote a monograph about Donatello, draw an illuminating comparison between a common grave resurrection and the one by Donatello.


Donatello pulpit Resurrection detail:  Resurrection
photos: Sailko

Donatello pulpit Resurrection detail:  'Christ'
photos: Sailko

Donatello’s Christ       Andrea del Castagno’s Christ

The resurrection that Andrea del Castagno painted in 1447 in the Sant’Apollonia did correspond to the prevailing views of that time. Castagno shows Christ as a victorious young beardless man. He has a white cloth around his muscular body and looks cheerful. The Christ of Donatello looks tormented and his attitude reveals fatigue. He is still wearing the shroud, unlike John writes in 20: 5: Bowing down, he [Peter] saw the bandages, but he did not enter. The eyes of Christ are barely opened with Donatello. Castagno has put Christ in the middle of a triangular composition that was popular during the quattrocento. Very different from Donatello who places Christ far from the centre on the left. The landscape of Castagno allows the eye to wander, contrary to what Donatello’s work shows. In Castagno’s fresco, one soldier behind the coffin looks at the resurrection. At Donatello there are no witnesses present: they sleep as if they were drugged. The scorpion on the shield with Donatello certainly has no purely decorative function, but a symbolic one. It is an illustration of what is said in Corinthians 15: 55- 56: Death where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?

Cenotaph of Donatello

Before we look at the work of Dario Guidotti and Raffaello Romanelli, we now walk to the aisle on the right where we have a look at the cenotaph of Donatello. It is not located here, but in the crypt near the tomb of Cosimo the Elder under the celebration.

Dario Guidotti and Rafaello Romanelli Cenotaph of Donatello Martelli chapel San Lorenzo

Vasari describes Donatello as a lovable and generous man. He never cared about money. He kept his ducats in a basket that hung high from the ceiling. Everyone who worked for him could pull the string to lower the basket and could take as much money as he needed. At the end of his life, Donatello was assisted by Cosimo and other friends. Cosimo’s son, Piero, took care of Donatello after his father’s death. Donatello was given a farm.

Portrait of Donatello
“Yet he had not owned it for more than a year when he returned to Piero and officially handed over the farm to him again, saying that he did not want to sacrifice his peace of mind to domestic care and to the farmer who was bothering him; every three days this farmer came to him, sometimes because the roof of his dovecote had been blown away, sometimes because he had lost his cattle to the municipal tax, and sometimes because his wine and fruit had been lost in the storm; Donatello was so fed up with all this, it was so tiresome, that he would rather perish of hunger than deal with any more of these issues. Piero laughed at Donatello’s simplicity, and in order to relieve him of this burden he took over the farm exactly as the other person wanted, and through his own bank he placed a sum of money on Donatello’s name that yielded the same or more, but in amounts that were paid to him in cash every week […]” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I blz. 203-204 (originele editie 1568)

Some statues of Donatello like the two Davids, we will discuss later when we visit the Bargello.

Continuation Florence day 4: Michelangelo and his Casa Buonarroti