The Museum of Biblical Art closes its run with a memorable show of Florentine sculpture.
by Jerry Weiss | May 18, 2015
After a decade at the corner of Broadway and Sixty-first Street, the Museum of Biblical Art is closing its doors on a very high note. Its final exhibition, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, features nearly two dozen works by sculptors including Donatello, Nanni di Banco, and Luca della Robbia. All the sculpture was produced in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, to adorn interior spaces and the facade of Il Duomo. Twenty-three pieces have been on loan to MOBIA since February 20, the result of ongoing renovation and expansion that have temporarily closed the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to the public. These works, representing the pinnacle of Florentine sculpture in the early Renaissance, had never been seen in this country until now.
My first smart move was seeing the show before it, and the museum, closed; my second was asking a friend and esteemed sculptor, Susie Chism, to accompany me. The exhibition opens with bronze replicas of three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Baptistery, under which are stone carvings made after them by the Master of Castel di Sangro. Sue shared my enjoyment of the texture and fragmentation of the stonework, but was better able to appreciate the superior technical mastery of the bronzes. A preference for roughhewn surfaces renders me unreliable for assessing the merits of sculpture with polished veneers; that this compromised my evaluation of Ghiberti’s masterpiece is not a source of pride.
Three hexagonal reliefs by della Robbia are enchanting. The opposing figures of the Dialectic are spiritual forerunners of Raphael’s School of Athens, and are more constrained by their classical narrative purposes than the joyously interwoven figures of della Robbia’s Cantoria. Writing in The New Criterion, Marco Grassi compared della Robbia’s panels to seeing “Masaccio-in-the-round,” and the analogy is most apt, except the monumentality of della Robia’s figures is leavened with a gently sensual touch, evidence that sculpture may be lighter than painting.
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi—Donatello—is rightfully the show’s star, a magnificent technician whose figures are imbued with understated energy. He is first represented here by two bronze heads, whose flowing hair, intense eyes, and abstract conception are so indebted to classical Roman art that they were once mistaken for works of antiquity. These are warm-ups for the main events: Placed side by side are Donatello’s life size marbles, Prophet Habakkuk and The Sacrifice of Isaac. With his flowing robe and pained expression, Habakkuk was the forerunner of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. The subject and presentation are obscure enough to encourage a variety of interpretations, but the prophet’s restless movement and ascetic appearance—the skull is reminiscent of Houdon’s l’Ecorche—place the emphasis on the figure’s interior life. A sixteenth-century scholar, Bernardo Davanzati, recognized the necessity for emotive exaggeration, given the placement of the sculpture at a height well above the viewer. “The eyes,” he wrote, “are made as if they were dug out with a shovel: eyes which would appear lifelike on the ground level would look blind high up on the Campanile, for distance consumes diligence.” Somewhat less poetic is Vasari’s account of Donatello’s frustration with the working progress of Habakkuk. “Speak, speak,” he is said to have commanded the sculpture, “or may you get the bloody shits!”
The Sacrifice of Isaac (on which Donatello worked with Nanni di Bartolo) is, by contrast, a familiar motif. The lengthwise thrust of the sculpture was no doubt dictated by the slender niche into which it had to fit, thus Abraham’s gesture of his arms at his sides, an iconography that painters—who often opened Abraham’s stance so as to take advantage of the moment an angel arrested his upraised arm—were not constrained to follow. While The Sacrifice of Isaac cleaves to the dramatic Biblical narrative, it is no less psychologically evocative than Habakkuk. The forms of both Abraham and Isaac’s bodies are beautifully modeled, balanced between naturalistic observation and classical references; Sue noted the pleasingly idealized profile of Abraham’s forehead and nose, a straight line continuing almost uninterrupted into his flowing beard. “It looks,” she said, “like it belongs to the mythological canon, rather than the religious. It’s the head of a satyr.” Yet seen head-on, Isaac’s expression is a portrait of existential crisis. He is torn between his faith in God and the love of his son; we are divided between fascination in the story and the sheer beauty of the work.
Equally intriguing is the pairing of two other immense marble figures, Nanni di Banco’s St. Luke the Evangelist and Donatello’s St. John the Evangelist. Since they were sculpted for shallow niches, the figures were not meant to be viewed in the round, something that Sue observed in the fact that the evangelists’ legs project in a more three-dimensional fashion than do the torsos. Indeed, when a visitor attempted to walk around the St. John, he was quickly apprehended by a guard (It is, incidentally, little wonder that the guards are roving the exhibition so conscientiously—in 2013 an American visitor to the Duomo touched a carving of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni D’Ambrogio, snapping off one of the sculpture’s fingers. The missing finger has been restored for this show. The entire work, an Annunciation, is a minor masterpiece and a beguiling treatment of the mystical interchange between the two figures.)
Sue was especially taken by the naturalism of St. Luke’s portrait, which I found fussy. For me, the contrast served only to underscore Donatello’s superior rendering of anatomical and draped forms, and the confidence of his portraiture, which displays great emotional complexity. His magisterial St. John, beside whom di Banco’s St. Luke looks a bit like a poseur, is often cited as an inspiration for Michelangelo’s Moses, but it is a disservice to see the figure primarily in this context. Donatello’s comparatively restrained conceptions are no less engaging than the muscular heroism of the High Renaissance, and may be appreciated for qualities similar to those of Rembrandt’s late images of prophets, which eschewed the grand rhetoric of the Baroque in favor of more profound notes.
A key service of this exhibition is to allow for a fresh viewing of these masterpieces and to appreciate them as something more than the quiet before the storm. Taken altogether, the movement of the figures has an almost torpid quality, as if perceived in a beautiful dream. What soon followed was an art of tremendous action, both physical and intellectual. Notwithstanding the achievements of the later Quattrocento, something charming was lost when Michelangelo resolved what had merely been implied by his predecessors. Della Robbia’s articulate reliefs, Donatello’s soulful figures and Brunelleschi’s powerful designs for the dome are masterworks of a flowering humanist aesthetic. For those of us desiring a trip to Florence, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello is both salve and spur. By any measure it is a memorable exhibition, a once-in–a-lifetime New York show, and an incomparable final act for a small museum.
Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral is at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York, through June 14, 2015. Some of Susie Chism’s work can be seen here.