The St. George by Donatello
We now walk to the south side of the guild building, to Via Or San Michele and look at the recess and the statue of St. George at the right corner pillar. The statue situated in the alcove was bronze, but nowadays marble. The authentic recess with the statue of marble will still be visible in the Bargello (Click here for Orsanmichele plan, streets and overview statues).
St. George was made between 1415-1416 for the guild: the Corazzai. Donatello continues in the style of his Marcus. St George’s is also made in the new style, the buono maniera moderna. Unlike Marcus, George’s attention, which is on watch, is focused on something beyond him: a possible danger perhaps? Vasari describes the statue as ‘a particularly lively figure of an armored Saint George, whose head expresses youthful beauty, courage and skill in the military field, as well as an awe-inspiringly proud liveliness, and this stone statue contains a beautiful movement […]. Translated from: Vasari, G., De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam 1990 deel I blz. 196
In 1552 Doni described in his, ‘I Marmi’, a short dialogue between Saint George and a sculptor from Fiesole: ‘Why, asked the narcissistic statue, do you reject my beauty? It is impossible that Donatello would portray me differently.’ (Doni in his, ‘I Marmi’, uit 1552 quoted from: Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Donatello Sculptor, Abbeville Press, New York/ London/ Paris 1993 48 (footnote12). Through the individual traits in the face of Saint George, Doni had gone in search of the man who was depicted here. He failed to understand that it does not convey an individual, but an ideal, like Michelangelo would later do and something Greek sculptors did back in the 5th century B.C. The figure is quite unique in Donatello’s oeuvre: a young boy according to classical standards of beauty like the Greek sculptor, Polyclitus, had described it in his Canon from the fifth century BC. In the sixteenth century an erotic poem was made about this statue in which the poet called this St. George ‘my beautiful Ganymedes’. Donatello usually avoided any use of classical beauty as we have so clearly seen with the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene. The faces often look worried or are downright ugly.
What is remarkable about the recess is that it is very shallow. This is because there is a staircase on the inside of the building so there was little space left for a recess. Donatello makes use of this handicap. He almost places the sculpture out of the recess, so that his St. George can in part be seen as a three-dimensional sculpture. What is new is that, although the statue is placed frontally, as a viewer you can still see the face of Saint George from multiple angles. This also explains why the artist has worked out the head completely on all sides in contrast to his Marcus or John. In this respect Donatello is clearly a forerunner of later developments in sculpture. For example, the sculptors of the sixteenth century were very keen on keeping a sculpture viewable from several angles and had to therefore make a beautiful impression on several sides. If you walk along St. George, you get to understand the statue well. Because St. George is positioned in front of the shallow recess, it approaches the viewer, which also increases the impact.
The position of the legs is dictated by the way soldiers on guard held their shield standing on the ground in front of them. The vertical line of the cross on the shield and the right arm hanging down lead the eye upwards to the head which is slightly turned to the left. This was highly appreciated by sculptors in the sixteenth century for its beautiful design.
Originally George wore a helmet and wore a sword or a lance in his right hand. He also had a sword sheath around his belt, the drill holes for this are still visible at his right hip.
When St. George is placed outside the recess, the statue appears stiff and the alert pose changes into a rigid posture. The architecture and the statue are therefore precisely attuned to each other. From the pediment of the recess God is looking at you. Up close, God is distorted, but not in situ, then God bends his head perfectly to the viewer. Here Donatello appears to consider the place of the work in relation to the viewer. The halo overlaps the frame and through his head bending forward, a relationship is also created between God and the watchful knight St. George in the recess. The head of Christ may be in shallow relief’, but it is far from as printed as in some parts of the relief at the bottom of this recess. After all, it had to be clearly visible to the spectator below.
The relief and legend of Saint George on the predella
In the predella, the underside of the recess, almost at eye level of the viewer, Donatello for the first time uses strongly printed or shallow relief, the so-called rilievo schiacciato. Here, St. George, the dragon and the princess are depicted. Shallow relief is an extremely difficult technique, even for an accomplished sculptor. Michelangelo would also use this technique, drawing in stone, in his early years, as we will see in a relief of his Madonna in the Casa Buonarroti. Michelangelo’s so-called Madonna of the stairs was not really successful.
The legend of Saint George (Georgios) with the story of the dragon first appears in the eleventh century. The city of Silene in Libya had a dragon in the nearby marshes. The inhabitants tried to keep the fire-breathing monster calm by giving him two sheep a day. When the sheep became scarce, the dragon was given one sheep and one child. The child was chosen by fate. Unfortunately for the king one day fate fell on his daughter. The king hesitated, but eventually had to yield to the people. Sobbing, he accompanied his daughter to the ominous place and left his daughter alone. The knight St. George passed by and asked the frightened daughter why she was so scared. After hearing the story, the knight jumped into his saddle and killed the dragon. Saint George is the patron saint of knights and scouts. No wonder the guild wanted this legendary saint in their recess.
The image on the relief of the plinth is not consistent. Some parts are carved in rather high relief such as the horse, the knight and the princess. Other parts, on the other hand, almost seem to be drawn in stone like the cave, the loggia or the trees. The whole is a mixture of the traditional high relief and rilievo schiacciato. In this relief, the depth and the story are subtly connected. The manifest parts like dragon, knight, killing and the princess stand out immediately. The background, trees, landscape, loggia are cut into very low relief so as to give more depth to the whole. These last elements are therefore serving and do not dominate. The relief and the statue of St. George fit well together in terms of the story, but this does not apply to the style. The relief of some parts such as the knight and the princess clearly resemble the style of Ghiberti for his first few doors to the Baptistery. Donatello even used the young beardless soldiers that you can see on some panels of the first doors of Ghiberti, such as the capture of Christ or Christ for Pilate.
In one respect, this relief has something you will never find in the international style, but only in the Renaissance. Although many writers speak of a correct perspective in this relief by Donatello, according to a writer like Janson, this is not really the case with the loggia to the right of the princess. In any case, this relief on the underside was the beginning of a development that led to the discovery of perspective. Made in 1416, years before Masaccio’s ‘Trinity‘, with the first painted linear perspective (but also not entirely correct). We will see this on the days of painting in the Santa Maria Novella.