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Making history at the Museum of Biblical Art

Maybe it’s because sculptor Donatello was more popular in Florence during the Renaissance than was Leonardo da Vinci that American museums go without Donatello. Italian treasure houses are tightfisted when it comes to his work. Not even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said to be the living encyclopedia of art worldwide, including work by Da Vinci, can call anything by Donatello its own.

A bronze by the sculptor Donatello
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

But come next year, Feb. 20 through June 14, 2015, the Duomo museum in Florence will loan several Donatello sculptures, many life-size, to New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. I can’t emphasize enough the rarity of this loan. Donatello was such a VIP in his day that his passing plunged the artists and citizens of Florence into mourning.

What accounted for Donatello’s celebrity? The answer may lie in his ability to convey feeling in stone and meta. It was something he worked hard at. When working on one of his statues, he was overheard to mutter to himself, “Speak, damn you, speak.”

His “St. Mark,” a standing, bearded patriarchal-looking figure holding a book, bears a face made to look in deep thought as if in prayer. Michelangelo, who recognized Donatello’s ability to express individual character, said of ”St. Mark” that he never saw a figure with more of the air of a good man than what Donatello sculpted, and that if St Mark were as good as he looked, one could believe in what he said.

In “Judith and Holofernes” Donatello describes the Biblical heroine seldom seen in art. While showing her in the usual way, standing over the soused body of the general, one hand raised with sword, the other holding him by the hair and a foot on his groin, Judith’s face is serene. There is no thrill of the chase visible in her nostrils, as if to reflect the knowledge that she is saving her people.

Art historian Vasari back in Donatello’s time saw her face as an expression of the inner strength she derives from God. Certainly her expression gives the impression of someone attentive to a coaxing voice.

Donatello was so satisfied with the results that he decided, for the first time, to put his name on his work using the words: Donatello Opus.

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