Thursday, 15 September 2011

The peasant on the cross

The 14th and 15th centuries must have been marvellous times if you were an artist in Italy. Not only did the commissions for great works of art flow freely but one would have worked in the midst of a throng of like minded creative geniuses. Sparks of inspiration would have sprung into the air over a glass or two of vino and the competition engendered would have provided a spur to minds already overflowing with artistic fervour - there is nothing like a little competition to encourage the pursuit of excellence.

The two great artists, Donato di Niccolo do Betto Rardi (aka Donatello) and Filippo Brunellesco were like minded friends and this is the story of how they vied with one another to produce the finest figure of Christ to grace a crucifix.

"Donato, who was always called Donatello by his friends and relatives, was born in Florence in the year 1383, and produced many works in his youth; but the first thing that caused him to be known was an Annunciation carved in stone for the church of S. Croce in Florence. For the same church he made a crucifix of wood, which he carved with extraordinary patience; and when it was done, thinking it a very fine piece of work, he showed it to fellow artist, Filippo Brunellesco that he might have his opinion upon it. Filippo, who expected from what Donatello had said to see something better, when he looked at it could not help smiling a little.

 Donatello, seeing it, begged him by their friendship to speak his mind truly, upon which Filippo, who was frank enough, replied that he seemed to him to have put on the cross a peasant and not Jesus Christ, who was the man most perfect in everything that ever was born. Donatello, feeling the reproach more bitterly because he had expected praise, replied,

"If it were as easy to do a thing as to judge it, my Christ would not look like a peasant; but take some wood yourself and make one."

Filippo without another word returned home, and, saying nothing to anyone, set to work upon a crucifix, and aiming to surpass Donatello that he might not condemn himself, he brought it to great perfection after many months.
Then one morning he invited Donatello to dine with him. Donatello accepted his invitation, and they went together to Filippo's house.
Coming to the old market, Filippo bought some things and gave them to Donatello, saying, "Go on to the house and wait for me, I am just coming."

Brunellesco's Crucifix

So Donatello, going into the house, found Filippo's crucifix arranged in a good light; and stopping to consider it, he found it so perfect that, overcome with surprise and admiration, he let his apron drop, and the eggs and cheese and all the other things that he was carrying in it fell to the ground and were broken. Filippo, coming in and finding him standing thus lost in astonishment, said, laughingly.

"What are you about, Donatello? How are we to dine when you have dropped all the things?"

"I," said Donatello, "have had enough. If you want anything, take it. To you it is given to do Christ’s, and to me rustics."

From Vasari's 'Lives of the Painters'

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking about your comment in relation to the commonly produced syrupy effeminate Jesus depictions when I ran across this:

    Which in turn gives this comment by you : "there is nothing like a little competition to encourage the pursuit of excellence." a whole new meaning.