Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 9): the Baptismal Font

Since the Gospel for today is traditionally dedicated to the beginning St John the Baptist’s public ministry (Luke 3, 1-6), we now turn to one of the most extraordinary artworks ever created in his honor, the font of the baptistery at the cathedral of Siena. This was made between 1417 and 1430 by several different artists, the most prominent among them being Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Jacopo della Quercia. The last of these three designed the structure, and sculpted several different parts of it: the first of the six bronze panels that decorate the sides of the basin, the large tabernacle in the middle, the five marble reliefs of the prophets on the tabernacle, the bronze angels at its corners, and the statue of the Baptist on top. (All pictures by Nicola de’ Grandi.)
The bronze panels on the basin depict six episodes from the life of the Baptist, beginning with the Annunciation to Zachariah by Jacopo della Quercia. The casting mold for this was originally made in 1417, but not actually employed until 1430. At each of the six corners there is an allegorical figure of one of the Virtues; to the sides of this panel stand Fortitude (left) by Goro di Neroccio, 1428, and Charity (right), by Giovanni di Turino, 1424.
The second panel shows the Birth of the Baptist, by Turino di Sano and his son Giovanni di Turino, cast in 1427.
At the corner, Prudence, by Giovanni di Turino, 1427.
The third panel depicts the Preaching of the Baptist, and to the right, Charity, both also made by Giovanni di Turino in 1427.
The fourth panel, the Baptism of Christ, is set facing the central door, so that it will be the first thing seen by those entering to be baptized (or at least, by their parents and godparents.) This was made by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1427, more than a quarter of a century after he won the design competition for the panels of the north door of the baptistery of Florence, the event which is (very artificially) considered the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. Ghiberti was much admired for the elegance of his figures, as typified by the pose of Christ and the Baptist here.
To the right stands Faith, made in 1427-9 by Donatello, the loser of the Florentine competition mentioned above, whose figures generally tends to be more statuesque and monumental.
At the same time, Ghiberti also did the fifth panel, the Arrest of the Baptist, a very dramatic and agitated piece; note how the other figures are all in motion, even Herod seated on this throne, while the Baptist, although not a passive figure with his raised arm, is perfectly steady, to show his constancy and courage.
At the corner, Hope, also made by Donatello in 1428.
The final panel, also by Donatello, represents the banquet at which the Baptist’s head is presented to Herod. Here we see tremendous advances made by the younger artist compared with his old rival Ghiberti: the story is told in different phases, each in a different degree of relief, drawing the viewer’s eye forward to the crucial moment. In the furthest background, the executioner holds the newly severed head; in the middle ground, we see the musicians just outside the banquetting hall; and in the foreground, a page kneels before the king and presents him with the head on a platter as the latter recoils in horror at his own evil deed.
Again, Fortitude, by Goro di Neroccio.
This altarpiece was brought to the baptistery from a now-deconsecrated church dedicated to St Stephen. It is the work of Andrea Vanni (1330 or ’33 – after 1414), a close friend and disciple of St Catherine of Siena; the oldest known image of her, a fresco in her order’s church in Siena, was made by him from life.
The best Tenebrae hearse ever. “They all left Him and fled.”

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