The art essay

Saint Mark, marble statue (c. 1411) by Donatello (c. 1386–1466)

The Florentine linen-makers’ guild, the Linaioli, took quite a chance when they hired twenty-five-yearold sculptor Donatello to carve the Saint Mark statue for their niche in Orsanmichele, the meeting hall for all the city guilds. Donatello’s name was familiar enough; he had been working in the busy studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the superstar of bronze casting, and was often seen in the company of Filippo Brunelleschi, the famous losing contestant in the battle for the bronze doors of the baptistery ten years earlier. The two had even traveled to Rome together, funded in part by the sale of Donatello’s farm, where they had studied ancient ruins so intensely that they were dubbed “treasure hunters” by locals. Despite this promising professional pedigree, Donatello’s works to date did not suggest the greatness that was to come.

 His David for the cathedral, too small to be placed in the façade, was a throwback to the Gothic preference for serpentine over solid, and his jaunty Saint John seemed to lack gravitas. This lack of experience probably convinced the Linaioli, who were flax workers and thus considered a middle or lesser guild, to invest twice as much in the decoration of the niche, with its intricate inlay of Prato green and Carrara marble, than in the debuting sculptor for the actual figure. 

 Donatello astonished Florence with his Saint Mark. As of the end of the 14th century, each guild was expected to produce a sculpture of its patron saint for one of the niches in Orsanmichele facing the street. The previous work by Pietro di Giovanni Tedesco was a slim, smiling, slight figure overwhelmed by its costly frame, but Donatello, for Saint Mark, drew on his Roman studies to produce a figure who appeared ready to step off his platform and proclaim the Gospel to 15th-century Florence.

 

The return of classical beauty

 Donatello’s 7’9” statue of Saint Mark stands in contrapposto, a weight distribution not seen in Italy since the ancient world. The cloaked right leg supports the figure, while the other rests, knee slightly bent, ready for movement. The upper body mirrors the lower: the right arm clasps his book, while the left hangs by his side. The figure rests on a cushion—a convenient piece of advertising for the linen guild—but the indentation of the cushion gives a greater sense of lifelike mass to the saint, increasing the viewer’s impression of a living man of flesh and blood.

 Donatello shows his tremendous skill with a chisel in several ways. Mark’s robe is clasped loosely at the hip with a thick belt, revealing a knowledge of anatomy and allowing for a gentle continuity throughout the figure. The bent leg is carved with folds of drapery that accentuate the knee, but the fabric around the supporting leg falls in parallel lines reminiscent of the flutes of a column. The enduring steadfastness of the Gospel message is already implied in the stability of the figure. The sensitive carving of the hands, veins, bone, and carefully articulated digits evoke the hands that wrote the inspired Word of God.

 

Saints up close

 The niches of Orsanmichele are remarkable for their proximity to the viewer. Instead of gazing down from high up on a cathedral façade, passersby feel that they could reach up and touch the feet of their favorite saints. The exemplary lives of Saint Mark, Saint George, or the Four Crowned Martyrs seem well within our reach, ready to be emulated.

 As the viewer raises his eyes to the face of the Evangelist, the full genius of Donatello becomes apparent. Aware of the sharply vertical perspective of the statue standing literally above the head of the spectator, Donatello enlarged the hands and elongated the face, raising the forehead and drawing the cheeks down in a thick cascade of beard. Instead of a little head balanced on a big body, the face of the saint is arresting, with its distant gaze to a world beyond our own. As we look upon the Evangelist, the Evangelist looks at the heavens, guiding all those who are willing to follow to Christ.

 The face is sensitively carved, with the full lips, strong cheekbones and broad brow conferring a naturalistic dignity to the face. The features are soft rather than aquiline, which together with the full locks of the beard evoke the proud visage of a lion. One of the symbols of Florence is the Marzocco, a heraldic lion carved by Donatello in 1418 which protects a lily, symbolic of Florence’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In equating the features of Saint Mark with the lion, he not only celebrated the Evangelist’s symbol, but united the Gospel to his city.

 The nobility, dignity, and gravitas of Donatello’s remarkable sculpture were best summed up by Michelangelo, who is reputed to have commented on the work: “I’ve never seen a more convincing image of an honest man than this statue, and if the Evangelist was like that I could believe everything he wrote.”

 

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy

 

Saint Mark, marble statue (c. 1411), Donatello (c. 1386–1466), Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy.