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Nanni di Banco, “St. Luke the Evangelist” (1408–13), marble, and Donatello, “St. John the Evangelist” (1408–15), marble, both of which were in niches alongside the Florence Cathedral’s main portal and are now on view in the Museum of Biblical Art’s ‘Sculpture in the Age of Donatello.’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Gauzy white fabric divides the single gallery of the Museum of Biblical Art into a series of ethereal chambers for Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, each turn revealing the marble visage of some stern saint or prophet. It’s an improbable exhibition, with 23 early Renaissance pieces that have rarely (if ever) left Italy, let alone crossed the Atlantic to arrive at this small Upper West Side museum. After their return to Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, it’s likely most of these pieces will never travel again because of their fragility and size. That exceptional nature of the exhibition is reason enough to visit, but the unexpected humanity of Donatello’s sculptures up close makes it essential.

Installation view of ‘Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral’ at the Museum of Biblical Art (click to enlarge)

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the museum of Florence Cathedral, is currently undergoing renovations until October, and the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) is the only stop for Sculpture in the Age of Donatello. Meanwhile, there’s just one relief by Donatello on permanent view in the United States: “Madonna of the Clouds” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This will probably be the best showing of his Florentine work in the United States for a while, maybe a lifetime.

Co-curated by Museo dell’Opera Director Timothy Verdon and Donatello scholar Daniel Zolli, who’s based at Harvard University, the exhibition also includes work by Donatello’s collaborators and contemporaries, who from 1400 to 1450 participated in making the Florence Cathedral, a project that jumpstarted the Renaissance in art and architecture. Anchoring the show are two colossal sculptures by Donatello (aka Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi) and Nanni di Banco, demonstrating two impressive sculptors competing with very different aesthetics right on the cathedral façade.

Donatello’s “St. John the Evangelist” (1408–15) gazes with furrowed intensity and a sprawling beard, while di Banco’s “St. Luke the Evangelist” (1408–13) has a neat style that could be mistaken for a Roman sculpture of Hadrian, his eyes half closed. Both were once positioned in niches on either side of the cathedral’s portal, four feet above an average person. To get the full impact of their oversize scale, you’d have to sprawl on the MOBIA floor (not recommended) and look up. Despite the slightly skewed perspective of viewing them at eye level, you get an immediate idea of two distinct artists, especially the energy emanating from Donatello’s saint, who, despite his detached confidence, feels ill at ease. A century later, the work would influence Michelangelo’s equally hulking “Moses.”

Donatello, “Prophet” (1435–36), marble, and “Abraham and Isaac” (1421), marble

You could easily linger with each piece, from Filippo Brunelleschi’s wood models for the cathedral’s dome to Luca della Robbia’s reliefs for its bell tower. However, it’s the animation in Donatello’s work that really bristles. This feeling is strongest in two pieces from the cathedral’s bell tower positioned together. In a collaboration with Nanni di Bartolo, Donatello worked a single block of marble into “Abraham and Isaac” (1421), capturing the moment when Abraham was called to stop the sacrifice of his son, a test of faith. Isaac wears a look of blank resignation, but Abraham’s carved eyes have a startled expression — you can almost hear the shriek of angels halting his knife, the blade still resting on his son’s shoulder while he grips the boy’s hair. Opposite is one of Donatello’s best, the “Prophet” (1435–36) or “Zuccone” (Squash Head), as he’s nicknamed for his bald skull. Thought by many to depict the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, the figure’s eyes originally angled down from the bell tower; even in that aged, mutilated face you can sense real conflicted human psychology.

Whether in the resolution of a saint, the torment of a prophet, or a father compelled to nearly murder his son, Donatello embodied the heaviness of the divine pressing on humanity with compelling naturalism, even while the stone still feels raw and exposed. It’s hard from the exhibition’s white, transcendent design to understand the original perspective and positioning of the sculptures in the towering cathedral, looking down from their imposing perches. Fortunately, at a human scale there remains the intended sense of awe, and one that’s for a fleeting time transported to New York.

Detail of Donatello’s “Prophet” (1435–36), marble

Donatello, “Prophet” (1435–36), marble, and “Abraham and Isaac” (1421), marble

Detail of Donatello’s “Abraham and Isaac” (1421), marble

Installation view of ‘Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral’ at the Museum of Biblical Art

Donatello and Michelozzo, bronze heads with traces of gilding (1439), possibly copied from ancient bronzes

Three marble sculptures by Luca della Robbia for the Florence Cathedral’s bell tower (1437–39)

Two marble prophets by Donatello from 1406–10, sculpted for the bell tower of Florence Cathedral

Two marble “profetinos,” or “small prophets,” the one on the left attributed to Donatello and the one on the right to Nanni di Banco, both from 1406–09

Nanni di Banco or Donatello, “Vir Dolorum” (“Man of Sorrows”) (1407–09), marble

Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio, “Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation” and “Virgin Mary of the Annunciation” (both late 14th century), marble

Installation view of ‘Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral at the Museum’ of Biblical Art

Lorenzo Ghiberti, “Adoration of the Magi” (replica from the North Doors of Florence Baptistery), gilded bronze; Master of Castel di Sangro, “Adoration of the Magi” (first half of 15th century), maiella stone, which copied the original Ghiberti composition

Installation view of ‘Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral’ at the Museum of Biblical Art

Exterior view of the Museum of Biblical Art

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral continues at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through June 14. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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