Since last spring, there has been a flurry of notices heralding the arrival this winter of an “unprecedented” show from Florence at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), a small, under-the-radar venue on the 2nd floor of the American Bible Society on the Upper West Side—where it resides until it has to vacate the premises by June 30, now that the Bible society has sold the building. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, MOBIA, whose mission it is to explore the influence of the Bible on Western art, is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a remarkable exhibit of 23 early Renaissance sculptures created for Florence’s famed Il Duomo (the Cathedral), most of which have never traveled outside Italy (some never outside Florence), and none of which have traveled to the U.S.
The non-collecting museum is a modest one for works of this caliber. Sculptures by the likes of Donatello and Luca della Robbia keep company with Filippo Brunelleschi’s wooden models of the Cathedral’s iconic dome and lantern. When a number of major American museums were unable to accommodate the show’s schedule, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Cathedral’s museum, which is undergoing an expansion and will reopen in November) approached MOBIA, which seized the opportunity to host the historic exhibit until June 14. Rarely do Americans get to see a Donatello, let alone major ones (Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has one marble relief, “Madonna of the Clouds,” in its permanent collection).
The Cathedral complex that these 15th century masterworks were sculpted to adorn is massive, and what we see here is nothing more than a quick take, a mere glimpse of the larger, glorious whole. But the curators and exhibit designers have succeeded admirably in recreating a feeling of being in a spiritual realm, albeit in just one airy room on Broadway.
Donatello (ca. 1386-1466) apprenticed with sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, famous for the Gates of Paradise doors in the Baptistry, and was a hero to Michelangelo, who felt that it was his destiny to compete with the late master. Donatello dominates the show with more than half a dozen major sculptures (a number are attributions or collaborations)—some life-size, some larger-than-life, all awe-inspiring.
His “Prophet” (1435-36), nicknamed “Lo Zuccone” (“Squash Head”) and probably a depiction of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, is arguably the star of the show, with his bald pate, ghostly eyes, bulging neck muscles, and angsty expression. Wikipedia notes the figure’s “uncanny resemblance to ‘Harry Potter’ villain Lord Voldemort”—just look for Ralph Fiennes amidst the prophets and the saints.
Carved from marble to occupy a niche in the third story of the Cathedral’s Bell Tower, Squash Head is notable for his realism and individuality (so much so that there was speculation that the figure was an actual portrait of a Florentine politician, Giovanni Cherichini, the catalog informs us). As Giorgio Vasari famously wrote in his encyclopedia of artists (1550), Donatello would often exclaim while carving the lifelike statue, “Speak then! Why wilt thou not speak?”
“Abraham and Isaac (The Sacrifice of Isaac)” (1421) represents a collaboration between Donatello and sculptor Nanni di Bartolo (“Rosso” for his red hair). It’s another showstopper and the only sculpture in the Bell Tower fashioned to tell a narrative. A marble screenshot, it captures the moment after Abraham heard the angel’s voice calling off the sacrifice—that moment when Abraham learned he had passed the test of faith and would be spared the agony of sacrificing his son. His head is inclined toward the voice of the heavenly messenger; the knife at Isaac’s neck appears to slip. The figure of Isaac is the “first life-size nude of the Renaissance,” the audio guide states.
“St. John the Evangelist” (1408-15), an early triumph, was commissioned to decorate the Cathedral’s façade. Situated at the far end of the room at MOBIA, this monumental Gospel writer was meant to occupy a shallow niche flanking the main entrance to the Duomo and sit approximately 10 feet above the ground.
As with all of Donatello’s carvings for the Cathedral, this was a site-specific work, with adjustments made to the figure’s proportions to take into account its elevation and the viewpoint of bystanders. Hence the artist sculpted an elongated torso—and carved deeply into the marble to create shadows, which provided emphasis and clear visibility of features from a distance. The figure holds a book and, according to a theory posited in the catalog, appears to be in the act of writing: “[H]is distant gaze indicates not the contemplation of previously recorded ideas but a search for inspiration in the heavens to guide the formation of new ones.”
There is inspiration in abundance here. Look up.