Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taking it to the Matt

Matthew Mallonee, that is, eldest son of my youngest sister Maria and her husband Steve, who is not only my nephew but my godson. Today, November 16th, is the feastday of his patron Saint, the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, the subject of today's entry. Many years, Matt.

In fact, this is not so much about Saint Matthew as it is about a statue of him by Lorenzo Ghiberti, situated in one of 14 external tabernacles at the Church of Orsanmichele. But in order to appreciate the importance of this particular statue, dear Readers, we have to take a few steps back, to see it in its larger context.

Let's start with the church itself." Orsanmichele" (the "ch" is pronounced "k," not "sh" as in French) means "in the 'orto,' or kitchen-garden, of St (Archangel) Michael." It was originally an open-air loggia, a roofed, open gallery, probably attached to a no -longer-existing Monastery of St Michael, in central Florence. From the late 1280's, grain merchants from around the region gathered to sell their produce there. In 1292, a series of healing miracles began to take place which were attributed to an icon of the Mother of God hanging from one of the loggia's inner columns. Soon the site became a place of pilgrimage, where people from near and far would come to pray for healing or offer thanks for prayers answered, and often to leave money for distribution to the poor. Beginning in 1337, at the direction of the Signoria, or City Hall, the arched spaces between the supporting columns of the loggia were closed over with stone, turning the formerly open space into a proper church, while the grain market/pantry was relocated to an upper level. The Signoria also decreed that the exterior of the building be decorated with statues of the patron saints of 14 of the city's guilds, at the expense of the guilds themselves.

The guilds were at the heart of Florentine commercial and political and, in a sense, religious life. Guilds were associations of master craftsmen and craftsmen. There were 21 such associations, ranging from butchers to lawyers (which, come to think of it, isn't that much of a range). Of these, 7 were considered "major" and the rest were minor. Moreover, only members of the major guilds were eligible for election to civic office. In his excellent "Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art" (1997), A. Richard Turner writes, "Beyond strictly business matters, the guilds were centrally involved in religious activity and charity. Each guild participated in the major religious holidays of the city, and each had responsibility for the celebration of the feast day of its specific patron saint. The guilds also oversaw and had financial responsibility for the city's major churches, and for its hospitals and charitable foundations" (p. 13).

Now back to the Orsanmichele. Each guild rightly understood that its niche would serve not only to glorify its patron saint but also as advertisement for the goods or services the guild provided. Everyone coming into Florence would come to Orsanmichele, which is a short walk south from the Duomo and even closer to the Piazza della Signoria. The statues were to be in niches which began about seven feet from the ground, and would stand above the insignia of the sponsoring guild. It was therefore in a guild's best interest to use the most impressive (read, "expensive") materials and commission the most talented craftsmen for the task. What makes Orsanmichele such an important site in the history of art is that, simply by walking around its walls, we can witness the evolution of modern statuary in the competition between guilds and artisans.

Consider, for instance, the bronze statue of St John the Baptist, a couple of photos of which are on my flickr page ( (The original of that statue is now on the upper level of the Orsanmichele; all the exterior statues are now copies.) It is the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the artist most in demand in early 15th-century Florence, who was working at the time on the first of his two sets of bronze doors for the nearby Baptistry. (I've included a self-portrait of the artist, poking his head out of his last set of doors to observe what he's certain are admiring crowds, on my flickr page.) St John was the patron of the incredibly rich Wool Merchant's Guild, which demonstrated its wealth by commissioning the statue in bronze, a material ten times as expensive as marble. No one had ever cast a bronze statue the size of St John (8'4") since antiquity. To display such a large statue by such a prominent artist in such a costly material spoke volumes about the wealth of the Wool Merchants. the statue itself is in a late Gothic style, with St John staring expressionless into the space ahead, his likewise inexpressive body draped in beautiful but unlikely folds of material. Ghiberti delivered a thing of great beauty, but neither he nor anyone else at the time had counted on what the young Donatello was doing at the same time, in marble, for the Linen Workers' Guild. Again, Turner: "The linen-workers probably expected something along the stylistic lines that Ghiberti produced, but instead received a work that can only be described as an artistic mutation, a figure at once more physically and psychologically compelling than anything produced for centuries. [The guild's patron, the Evangelist] Mark stands with his weight heavily on his right leg, a pose that activates the whoile body.... In stunning contrast to Ghiberti's wholly decorative treatment of drapery, Donatello used drapery to reveal the forms and relations of the body beneath it.... The psychological vitality of the figure (is evident in) St Mark's gaze into the space of the spectator's on the street, forehead furrowed, deep-set eyes intense.... This contrast between Ghiberti and Donatello is the defining moment of the waning Gothic versus the new Renaissance of forms" (p. 56).

Of course, it didn't stop there. Donatello went on to sculpt, again in marble, the stunning St George for (who else?) the Armorers' and Sword Makers' Guild. (The fourth-century saint is depicted wearing the last word in armor, gear no self-respecting knight of the early 15th century could afford to be without.) And Ghiberti responded to the challenge of the young upstart with another bronze, incorporating elements of the new style being pioneered by Donatello. He produced, this time for the Bankers' Guild, another of the city's richest and most powerful guilds, an enormous bronze of its patron saint, the former tax-collector, the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew (we finally got to him!), in a far more psychologically engaged manner than John the Baptist's. Matthew looks down at the street-level observers, directing their attention with his right hand to the book he holds in his left, which is open to the beginning of his Gospel. His weight is clearly on one leg, and the cloth draping him appears to cover an actual body, although Ghiberti is still evidently committed to Gothic conventions of arranging the folds into repetitive crescents. Donatello responded with a massive bronze of his own, his first, of St Louis of Toulouse. And the rest is art history.

I wish I could provide you with my own pictures of these great works of art, but my internet connection here is criminally slow, and it takes forever to upload new material on youtube or flickr. I've often waited for over an hour for a short video clip or a handful of pics to upload, only to be told within minutes of completion that the connection had failed. I will post my best stuff when I get back to the states next month. meanwhile, for those who are interested in seeing for yourself everything I've been describing, go to

One last note: the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God which was responsible for the creation of this particular sacred space was destroyed in a fire. The image presently enshrined at Orsanmichele, "Our Lady of the Graces," is a work of the mid 14th century. It is displayed to the right of the main altar, in an enormous marble tabernacle of incredible delicacy and complexity. No photos or videos are allowed in the church, so I have reproduced a photo from a book on my flickr page, just to give you an idea.

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