Amelia Saul and St. John the Evangelist (ca. 1410)
Donatello’s extraordinary St. John the Evangelist, the center-point of the Museum Of Biblical Art’s Sculpture in the Age of Donatello this last spring, is a Trojan Horse. Donatello works his way deeper into thought for days; he troubles. Along with twenty-two other irreplaceably precious works of Renaissance sculpture, the nearly seven-foot marble work was in New York because the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence decided it best to tuck him into an airplane and fly him to the New World so he could experience international travel while they remodeled their galleries.!!img!!
St. John was installed within sight of Donatello’s blood-chilling Prophet Habakkuk, and a foot away from Nanni di Banco’s St. Luke, a hunk of marble-man sitting proud, confident, and stiff. St. Luke looks less like a saint than like an arrogant man in his prime, confident in his ascent and domination over the restless and ruminating elder next to him.
I had to find my way through blindness to see Donatello’s work. The main reason for this blindness was thinking I already knew what I was looking at. The familiarity of the shapes, postures, and subjects of Renaissance sculpture, the sense that I’d “learned” them already in some art history survey adds to the already blinding familiarity of marble.
Matte but somehow glittering, uniform, monumental, white with no chips, no missing fingers and a whole nose; it looks like it’s always existed, even before it was made. But then, why so troubled its subject, John? He is looking at something unfathomable. The End of Time, probably, or some terrible detail like fire-breathing locusts with woman-hair and lion-teeth. Donatello works a shade of doubt into John’s look, a twinge of fear. This St. John is not at ease with God. This saint is still human. He fears death and doubts God. The line of doubt on his forehead is what lets the the sculpture decompress. The blinding uniformity of the stone disassembles into grains, striations, layers, records of time and the tormented crust of Earth. His flesh is marble, but the marble is only flesh. Instead of a monument, you have a moment of the earthly existence of its subject.
His stomach hollows in hunger, lifts up through his turning chest and turning face, and shoots out from under his heavy brows, becoming a searching, God-questioning gaze. Overall, the sculpture forms a subtle spiral describing St. John lost in thought, looking up to his right. But there’s a weird culmination: just where he should attain Vision, his eyes falter. He has pupils but no irises.
While John mourns the coming End of Everything, Donatello revels in the act of creation. Most beautifully, the fold on St. John’s right forearm is a being-formed image of St. John’s hand below. Donatello takes it further. In the hanging folds of the cloak between his knees, the hand dissolves back into stone. On the left, the hand rests with unconscious fingers on the book. Below, the hand is rhymed in drapery, drawn as a ghost fading away. The sculpture registers its own coming-into-being, and is breathtakingly present, but sketches a reminder of its own ultimate crumbling.
Next to John, Luke gazes down in kingly posture, hands powerfully on knees, chest lifted, chin high. But John is not aware that you’re looking. His thoughts are elsewhere, traveling from his book to his hand, up his arm to his eyes, leaving his body behind. The edge of the marble describing the fabric cloak is precarious, extremely thin, a virtuosic display of workmanship. Gaze into the folds of fabric between his legs and up the sleeves of his coat to his elbow. You’ll see no endings, only vanishings. It is in the fabric, not the face, that we see the unconscious thought of the Evangelist. Gaze and space out, and do it long enough, and you might see a second figure pushing out from underneath his belly, formed of his legs and clothing. It crawls forward with outstretched hands, pathetic. It could be St. John’s vulgar human nature, or sex, or again that hunger. It could be someone stuck inside. It could be the thought caught for a moment by a life, the life caught for a time in the flesh, and here, trapped a little longer in marble.
Amelia Saul is an artist who lives in New York.