Donatello’s pulpits for San Lorenzo

The freedom of an elderly master

Renaissance art rarely talks about the artistic freedom. Medieval and Renaissance artists were everything but free. While working on commission from ecclesiastic institutions, confraternities and wealthy patrons, the artists had very little influence on the subject matter of their works or on the quality and costs of the materials they could use. If they were working on a religious work, the established iconography was also strongly influencing their imagination. Can you imagine Saint Peter without his keys or Mary dressed in green and white instead of blue and red? Yet, even with this rigid framework certain artists managed to renew and to revolutionize the artistic world. This artistic freedom was achieved gradually together with the development of a career. Not by chance some of the most innovative works were made during the fifteenth century by elderly artists at the end of their lives. The most fascinating example of works of art that break with the established rules are Donatello’s pulpits for San Lorenzo basilica created during the 1460s.

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi called Donatello

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi was born in Florence in 1386 as a son of a wool carder Niccolò di Betto Bardi. We know very little about Donato’s training but from the fragmentary information we can suppose that he trained in a workshop of a goldsmith. Goldsmithery was also the profession of Filippo Brunelleschi, nine years older than Donatello, who shortly became the younger sculptor’s mentor and friend. In 1402, after Brunelleschi’s defeat in the competition for the second bronze door for the Florentine Baptistery the two artists left the city and went to Rome where they investigated the Roman ruins.

Donatello’s early career

The friendship with Brunelleschi was particularly important for Donatello’s early years. After their stay in Rome the two artists collaborated at the elaboration of the linear perspective and they worked together at San Lorenzo designing the so-called Old Sacristy for the Medici family. In this period Donatello developed his artistic language and expanded the network of his commissioners and patrons. In particular, he built a long-lasting relationship with Cosimo the Elder the Medici. The artist executed for Cosimo the bronze statue of David, and for Cosimo’s son, Piero, he designed the bronze statue of Judith, which you can admire today at the Palazzo Vecchio.

Donatello’s maturity and his Judith

Judith, made between 1453 and 1457, is one of the statues that open Donatello’s maturity. Already in this work Donatello proved to be a courageous innovator ready to break the rules.

The story of Judith is described in the Old Testament. This brave widow saved her hometown Bethulia by killing the leader of the Assyrian troops that were trying to invade the city. The inhabitants of Bethulia could not win with the Assyrians on the battle field, so Judith went to Holofernes’ tent, offered him a lot of wine and cut of his head. During the fifteenth century the story of Judith was used to represent feminine virtues but, as in the case of Donatello’s bronze, it could also convey political messages. The image of Judith, who killed an enemy and protected her homeland, became for the Medici the symbol of their political action aimed at the protection of the Republic of Florence.

Donatello, Giuditta, copia, Piazza della Signoria, Firenze.
Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, copy, original:1453-1457, Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

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Donatello’s public was accustomed to the image of Judith pictured after the aggression on Holofernes. On most of the paintings Judith walks with a sword in her hand while her servant carries Holofernes’ head on a plate. Donatello consciously broke with this imaginary and dared to show the woman in action, with a sword in her hand ready to hit Holofernes’ neck. The drunk commander is totally unconscious of what is about to happen. His head have to be hold by Judith and his legs dangle in the air. This iconographic shift doesn’t mean much for a contemporary viewer but for a fifteenth-century spectator it was an important novelty. By changing the moment represent in his sculpture, Donatello broke with the traditional image of women. While women were associated with the Theological virtues: hope, charity and faith, aggression and violence did not belong to the feminine world. Yet, Donatello’s Judith is pictured as a woman who decided to act and to kill. Through this statue you can see that already in 1457 the artist dared to break with the well-established iconographic schemes and he challenged the imaginary of his viewer. During the 1460s he will go even a step further.

Donatello’s pulpits for San Lorenzo

Donatello, Pulpito della Passione, San Lorenzo, Firenze
Donatello, Passion pulpit, 1460s, San Lorenzo Basilica, Florence.

The two pulpits we can admire today at San Lorenzo in Florence were the artist’s last work. The first pulpit is dedicated to Christ’s Passion, the other to the Resurrection. Donatello didn’t even have time to finish them, as the incomplete bronze plates were found in the artist’s workshop after Donatello’s death in 1466. In consequence, Donatello did not participate to the assembly of the pulpits in the church as they were not brought into San Lorenzo until 1515 and they were permanently placed in the Basilica as a pair only in 1565, 99 years after Donatello’s death[1].

Donatello, Pulpito della Risurrezione, San  Lorenzo, Firenze.
Donatello, Resurrection pulpit, 1460s., San Lorenzo, Florence.

This troubled history of the pulpits and the lack of documents regarding possible pupils’ interventions on the unfinished bas-reliefs, make of the pulpits a perplexing puzzle for Donatello’s scholars. Leaving aside these discussions, let us have a proper look at the pulpits in their present form.


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Donatello’s pulpits: playing with the frame

An attentive viewer of Donatello’s pulpits notices quite immediately numerous details that attract attention and prove the artist’s bold approach to the established norms of fifteenth-century iconography and composition.

Donatello, Preghiera nell'orto, San Lorenzo, Firenze.
Donatello, Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Passion pulpit, 1460s., San Lorenzo, Florence.

In his pulpits for San Lorenzo Donatello experimented with the idea of frame. If you look at the scene with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane pictured on the Passion pulpit, you will notice that Donatello positioned the apostles directly on the frame. They sit around the scene deep in sleep. Their dormant bodies are shown with extreme realism. The apostles lean on the columns dividing the various scenes, their legs hang freely in the air and we almost hear them snoring. In this composition the frame does not divide the representation from us. Here the fictional world comes out of the frame and enters into the spectator’s space. It seems that in this composition Donatello tried to challenge the boundaries between reality and fiction.

Donatello, Deposizione dalla Croce, San Lorenzo, Firenze.
Donatello, Deposition, Passion pulpit, 1460s., San Lorenzo, Florence.

In the scene of the Deposition the artist played with the frame in a different way. If you look closely at the composition, behind the central scene with Jesus’ body being taken down from the cross, you can see the crosses with the cadavers of the two thieves crucified with Christ. In reality, we see the corpses only in part, because they are cut by the frame. The first corpse is cut just above the knees while the other is visible to the neck.

For a contemporary viewer this cut does not seem strange. Today we are used to photography and to photographic framing that tends to leave certain parts of a composition out of the frame. Yet, in 1466 photography did not exist and the artists were taught to include all the elements of the image within the frame. Cutting, leaving parts behind the spectators’ view was not usual.

Donatello once again proved to be a courageous innovator that breaks with the established norms. His cut compositions are much more dynamic and these sharp divisions reinforce the realism of the scenes.

Yet, the most innovative solutions were applied to the Resurrection pulpit.


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Donatello’s pulpits: the Resurrection

If you grew up in Catholic family, you are probably familiar with the statues of resurrected Christ that decorate the churches during the Easter. In these figures Jesus is showed as a winner. His naked athletic body is covered with a vast robe. He displays his deep wound in his chest and he hold a standard in his right hand. This is how Piero della Francesca pictured resurrected Christ in his fresco in Sansepolcro.

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection, Sansepolcro.
Piero della Francesca, Resurrection, 1463-1465, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro.

Piero della Francesca’s fresco was painted between 1463 and 1465, so the artists was working on this composition contemporary to Donatello’s work on his pulpits for San Lorenzo. Yet, the way the two artists pictured resurrected Christ is completely different.

Donatello, Risurrezione, San Lorenzo, Firenze.
Donatello, Resurrection, Resurrection pulpit, 1460s., San Lorenzo, Florence.

If you look at the scene of Resurrection pictured by Donatello you can see Jesus, still covered with the shroud, with his feet resting on the sarcophagus looking at the sleeping soldiers who were supposed to guard his tomb. It seems that he himself did not realise yet what has just happened. He woke up after a long sleep and looks around a bit confused and tired. He didn’t even have time to free his body from the shroud and the bandages.

In accordance with the traditional iconography of the scene, Jesus holds a standard that symbolises his victory over the death. Yet, Donatello’s Christ is far from being an athletic winner. He is much more human, humble and real. Not a superhero but a human being who has just experienced the unimaginable trip through the underworld. In fact, on the previous panel Donatello pictured Jesus’ descent to the Limbo where he was greeted by all these who died before Jesus’ sacrifice and who had to wait for his resurrection to achieve salvation.

Donatello’s revolution

“And so, what is all that fuss about? Donatello simply pictured Christ differently!” you might say… Yet, playing with the religious iconography has never been easy. Christian images use well established codes that the artists had to learn and apply. According to these codes Saint Peter always holds his keys, Saint Paul a sword and Saint Bartholomew a knife and his own skin. Virgin Mary is always dressed in blue and red and resurrected Christ is showed as a strong, half-naked winner. Changing these schemes is always revolutionary and meaningful.  

It seems that elderly Donatello acquired already such a level of public recognition and appreciation, that the ecclesiastic authorities allowed much greater artistic freedom to the master. At the end of his career Donatello tested new solutions and pushed the limits of religious iconography. Donatello’s pulpits from San Lorenzo remain one of the most fascinating works created by him.  

San Lorenzo Basilica, Florence.
San Lorenzo Basilica, interior.

Do you want to see Donatello’s pulpits during your stay in Florence? Book my Medici tour or contact me! I will be happy to organize your private tour to San Lorenzo Basilica!


[1] A. Butterfield, “Documents for the pulpits of San Lorenzo”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 1994, 38. Bd., H. 1 (1994), p. 149.