Thursday, December 21, 2017

An Early Renaissance Pulpit

It is a convention of Italian art history that the Renaissance began in Florence in the year 1401, with a competition among artists to make bronze panels for the doors of that city’s baptistery. While this event was certainly a watershed, this convention steals a bit too much credit from earlier artists who were already laying the foundations of the Renaissance in the mid-to-late 13th century, and over the course of the 14th. Among sculptors, two of the most important in this era are Nicola Pisano (ca. 1215 – 1280), and his son Giovanni, (ca. 1248-1315.) The monumental pulpits which they created, Nicola in the cathedral of Siena and the baptistery of Pisa, Giovanni in the cathedral of Pisa and the church of St Andrew in Pistoia, are particularly noteworthy as the earliest sculptural groups directly inspired by ancient Roman works.

Pisa is not very far from the famous Carrara marble quarries, and in ancient times was an important center for the production of sculptures and sarcophagi. In the Middle Ages, an impressive collection of Roman sculptures had accumulated in and around the cathedral, and many of the ancient sarcophagi had been reused for new burials. Nicola Pisano, who came to the city about 1257 to make a pulpit in the baptistery, was one of the very first Italian artists to study and imitate these ancient works, and one of the first in whose work the specific ancient models which he studied and imitated can be identified. The same is true of the works of his son, such as the pulpit which he added to the cathedral itself about 40-50 years later, to replace a very primitive Romanesque work of the mid-12th century.

A common motif on ancient Roman sarcophagi was a lion devouring a herbivore, usually a donkey or a deer; for the Romans, this may have been intended to represent the victory of death over all things. Here, Giovanni Pisano has copied it very successfully; his lions are far more realistic than those commonly seen at the doors of Italian Romanesque churches, which are often just very hairy, elongated cats. Its placement at the base of the pulpit represents the savagery of the world, which is tamed by classical civilization, and sanctified by the coming of Christ.
The base of the central pillar is decorated with symbolic figures representing the Seven Liberal Arts, the Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (Music, seen here, plus Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy.)
The base with the Liberal Arts supports a column decorated with the Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, whose faces are also notable as works inspired by classical models. This demonstrates how the study of the arts informs the practice of the virtues, which are the foundation of the Christian life. Their placement in the middle of the pulpit, however, is not original. In 1595, the cathedral of Pisa suffered a disastrous fire which destroyed the ceiling. During the subsequent restoration works, the pulpit, then seen as very old fashioned, was dismantled, and the pieces displayed in various parts of the complex. By 1926, its historical importance as a foundational work of the Italian Renaissance had come to be more widely understood, and it was reassembled in place, but modern scholars believe that the caryatids were originally more visible.
This figure of Hercules represents Fortitude, and is well-known as one of the very rare examples of a nude (again, based on classical models) in late Medieval sculpture.
This figure of the Church stands on a base, around which are placed the Cardinal or Philosophical Virtues, Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. The figure of Temperance, seen here in the foreground, is copied directly off of a well-known classical representation of the goddess Venus known as the Venus pudica, the “chaste” or “modest Venus”; a very considerable number of ancient examples of it have been found.
The central register between the columns and the narrative panels is decorated with figures of Prophets, Sybils and Evangelists, those who announced the Faith to the ancient world, as the preacher standing above them proclaims the teaching of the Church to the faithful gathered to hear him. The narrative panels, in accordance with the common medieval tradition, represent various episodes of the life of Christ. Pisano is particularly skilled in incorporating a very large number of figures into his panels, as we see here in the Adoration of the Magi.
The Massacre of the Innocents and the Betrayal of Christ.
 The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple.
The Birth of the Virgin (below), the Annunciation and Visitation all crammed into a single rather chaotic panel.
The same panel from a different angle, and the birth of Christ.
Due to over bright lighting, I was unable to get any usable photos of my own of the two other panels of the life of Christ; these two come from Wikimedia, by Sailko. Here, the Crucifixion; note how the artist emphasizes the humility of Christ in His Passion by filling the panel with other figures; compared to earlier representations of this scene, including that by his father in the baptistery, Christ occupies far less space.

The Last Judgment; in the modern placement of the pulpit, this is set at the back in such a way that it cannot be seen very well.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: