Donatello Gives Some Cachet to Biblical Art

by Genna Rivieccio

In terms of getting people to attend the Museum of Biblical Art, the overt challenges lie in alluring anyone who is either a) under 50 or b) not a religious zealot to visit. Enter the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit–the first “sexy” exposition quite possibly in the museum’s entire ten-year history in existence.


Exterior prototype of Florence Cathedral

The small, intimate display of some of the most important Renaissance masterpieces from the Florence Cathedral showcases not only Donatello’s early works, but also significant sculptures from Nanni di Banco, Giovanni D’Ambrogio and Filippo Brunelleschi. While Donatello is the clear-cut (no marble pun intended) master who stands out from all the rest, his contemporaries show remarkable attention to detail–punctuated by intense emotion–in their renderings.


Entrance to MOBiA

The carefully placed sculptures seem specifically curated to deliberately allow the viewer to compare and contrast the styles of each sculptor. For instance, di Banco’s Saint Luke sculpture is positioned next to Donatello’s Saint John sculpture in order to distinguish between their subtle, yet palpable differences. The emotion on Saint John’s face is far sterner and more piercing than the stoner vibes of Saint Luke, whose eyes are partially closed and largely disinterested.


Saint Luke


Saint John

Architecturally speaking, Brunelleschi’s dome constructions represent simplicity at its most intricate. Up to this point (1418), there had never been a dome conceived of that was so large. The biggest size at that moment in time was the Pantheon in Rome. And so for Brunelleschi to shatter the expected barriers for a dome of this size makes him well worth being considered on the same level as Donatello with regard to his genius.

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With each piece from the exhibit being a part of the Florence Cathedral, it wouldn’t be complete without a look at the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a master in the art of bronze, who created a new set of doors cast in this striking material that would later become known as the Gates of Paradise. Donatello was, in fact, deeply influenced by Ghiberti’s work, and would study his sculpting techniques for his own inspiration later on.

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The combined efforts of these formidable Italian sculptors–with Donatello at the forefront–combined to create one of the most incredible cathedrals in the world–thereby making religious history ever so slightly more interesting to a twenty-first century audience. Clearly, the curator at MOBiA knows exactly what to do to draw in a less greying crowd (because apparently only olds understand culture on the Upper West Side).