How Does Donatello Tell the Story of the Annunciation

Painting/Sculpture Essay- Ronan Carey Donatello, originally known as Donato, was given the name Donatello by his relatives and thus, wrote it that way on many of his works, was born in Florence in the year 1386. A gifted artist, he was not only an excellent sculptor and a marvellous statuary, but also prevalent in stucco, an able master of perspective, and a greatly admired architect who worked in virtually every medium possible during his long career, marble, bronze, low relief, pietra serena (dark stone), and even wood .
And according to Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists”: “his works showed so much grace, design, and excellence, that they were held to approach more nearly to the marvellous works of the ancient Greeks and Romans than those of any other craftsman whatsoever. ” The piece that shall be discussed in this essay is the work considered by many to be Donatello’s most important work in pietra serena, the “Annunciation (c. 1435)” for the Cavalcanti tabernacle, in the Santa Croce Chapel, Florence.
The entire piece is 218cmx268cm, and is an architectural sculpture that takes the place of an altar in a family chapel, located in the right aisle of the Chapel following the renovation of the Original church and destruction of the original Chapel by Vasari. The Annunciation itself is a biblical scene that refers to moment in which the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary that she is to bear the child of Christ. In the Bible, the Annunciation is narrated in the book of Luke, Luke 1:26-38: Luke 1:26 and in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed ‘art’ thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and ring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. It was the skill of Donatello to translate this scene into a sculpture so vibrant and powerful that generation after generation would look upon it and understand the power and significance of the depiction. According to Joachim Poeschke, author of “Donatello and his World”, like Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello felt that “the Distance between the viewer and the action had to be overcome in the emotional sense as well as the visual”.

It is this mentality that causes the work of Donatello to sweep a viewer up and allow them to feel in the midst of the action, He did not have to “rely on realistic effects to create such brilliance but rather focus on his own imagination and creative control over his piece”. However, in this piece, Donatello does actually create a harmoniously realistic rendering of such a miraculous and often over-exaggerated scene. So how exactly does Donatello tell the story?
Well the strength of the piece lies in its choice of subjects, their depiction, and the complex emotional brevity he applies to their story. The sculpture itself is carved from a single stone of pietra serena, a typically dark stone that is often avoided by sculptors for its monotony in tone and contrast but in the hands of Donatello he used exquisite gold gilding to create a rich and sensuous appeal to the carving. The gold would have glimmered high above the parishioners in the candlelight of the otherwise dark Franciscan church, notable for its one large external rose window.
It is important to note the fact that the parishioners would have been looking up at the elevated sculpture as it plays a paramount role in our understanding of its depiction. Donatello used foreshortening in his rendering of Mary to the extent that on ground level, her right leg appears slightly shorter than it would be if it was anatomically correct. An article in “The Florentine” magazine by Jane Fortune discusses how this foreshortening allows the figures to stand out in what appears to be a much higher relief than one would expect. However, as Bonnie A. Bennett and David G.
Wilkins say in “Donatello”, the use of a richly patterned and gilded background immediately behind the figures prevents the illusion of further depth, but this restricted spatial effect is very appropriate for Donatello’s annunciation as it architecturally justifies his omission of several iconic elements of the annunciation scene. If we look at the figures presented we see only the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Mary and her lyre back chair. It was common practice in the history of art in 15th Century to depict Mary and surrounding with numerous symbols to increase the abject legitimacy of the art.
Some of these elements include Mary reading or holding a book to display knowledge and wisdom, a lily for purity, a lectern for the word of God or a dove to show the Holy Spirit. In Donatello’s rendering of the Annunciation, however, there are none of these icons save for the Virgins’ book but there is also no loggia, no view into the virgin’s bedchamber, and no symbolic walled garden to represent her virginity. Florence’s museums and churches abound with portrayals that at times seem overcrowded with symbolism and icons to inform a viewer of the theological importance of the scene they are witnessing.
Donatello has chosen to do with away with any imagery that may cloud the focus on the Virgin and Gabriel to allow a viewer to become swept up in the complex story at hand. These omissions only prove to make what Donatello has actually included all the more essential. If we look at how exactly he has illustrated the angel Gabriel we see that he has chosen the moment when Gabriel has literally just entered the room, his large, deep wings are still unfurled in manner that suggest he has only landed this very second to deliver his news.
His drapery and ribbons are swept back behind him to accentuate this idea of swift movement and he appears to genuflect on one knee instead as he comes to a landing with his mouth slightly agape in the act of addressing the virgin. Donatello is transmitting the idea of the power and meaningfulness behind what Gabriel has to say. The Madonna herself is in a pose not usually seen up until that point in art history. According to Gerald S. Davies in the Burlington Magazine, “She is arrested at the precise moment when it expresses the most completely a condition of mental emotion”.
She has been caught whilst reading a book; it is still held firmly in her grasp. We can tell she has just risen at the appearance of the angel as she has turned by impulse to leave, clearly taken aback by this miraculous apparition. Her right knee, already bent to take the first step, tells us this. Her left foot is planted firmly on the ground and is yet to be moved. With her right hand she is briskly yet still gracefully clasping for her mantle, which suggests it has fallen from her shoulders as she leapt up in commotion but also confirms that she is accepting of the Angel’s news as she places her hand on her heart.
All of these subtle movements come together to express an emotional experience of hearing the message of an angel. Her face is turned downwards in a gracious pose reminiscent of Greek classical sculpture that places it almost completely in profile and away from the direction she is apparently walking. This one look, alone, tells us that what she is hearing is clearly an encapsulating and spellbinding message. In conclusion, Donatello has created something truly special in his depiction of the Annunciation.
His omission of several elements in this much re-created scene gave it its own individual appearance and personality, and although it is clearly indebted to the high-relief Greek classical sculptures of Donatello’s favour, it still remains utterly contemporary and even forward thinking in terms of renaissance sculpture. He has taken an otherwise difficult and unspectacular medium, pietra serena, and bent it to his will to create a spectacular piece of ecclesiastical sculpture.
His contemporaries would have been so impressed by this work for its sheer courage if nothing else, Donatello did away with traditional conventions for the sake of expressing more genuine emotional in his art. His ability to allow the three essential elements of the story to occur simultaneously, that of the angel’s arrival and the virgin’s shock, his message being delivered, and Mary’s eventual acceptance, is what elevates this work of stone into another level of artistic expression for its time that would have amazed his contemporaries as well as the average citizens of Florence.
References: Donatello- Bonnie A. Bennett and David G. Wilkins (pg. 32/147/148) Joachim Poeschke- Donatello and his world (pg. 32/56) Jane Fortune- Variation on a theme: Annunciation- The Florentine-published June 28, 2007 Giorgio Vasari- the lives of the Artists Tuscany Arts- Looking at Donatello’s Annunciation Gerald S. Davies – A Sidelight on Donatello’s Annunciation- The Burlington Magazine- published 1908

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