Donatello, Madonna of the Clouds (c. 1425-35)
VOICE 1: We’re in the [laughs] we’re in the baby Jesus wing.
VOICE 2: At least it’s got a good face on this one.
VOICE 3: I mean, standing in front of an image, that’s carved into what looks like stone or marble. And obviously, it’s the Madonna, the Virgin Mary, and she’s holding baby Jesus.
VOICE 4: They’re in like, some kind of water, or clouds.
VOICE 5: It looks like the clouds, or maybe waves are moving? You can practically see the wings moving. The Madonna’s headdress is flowing around her shoulders.
VOICE 4: And it’s very beautiful and very serene.
VOICE 4: It’s very loving, it’s very connective. I mean, obviously they don’t need any words. You know, it’s a sculpture, but just looking at this, you know, you can just see that they wouldn’t use words, they would just communicate with touch and feel, in a very loving, a very loving, accepting way.
VOICE 6: I mean, it can be quite ominous in nature, actually. Like, these like angel babies are like, give me your kid! And she’s like, get away, I don’t wanna! [laughs]
VOICE 7: Kind of ethereal. Like all of the textures kind of blend into each other, and it’s kind of like, since it’s on white marble, it’s kind of like, dreamlike and kind of far off looking, I guess?
VOICE 1: I like that this one’s like really flat, but you can still see the dimensionality of the faces, and the depth that’s created by the shadow on the top. Like, it’s amazing, it really can’t be more than a quarter of an inch thick all the way through the entire carving, but get gets all this, like, paints with the light, really. Like, wow.
VOICE 1: Like, I feel like, it’s obviously dramatic, but it has less of a stylized approach and I think that makes it feel maybe more real, or like tangible?
VOICE 8: And the way she’s holding baby Jesus, just in her arms, she doesn’t look tense at all. It’s very soft, and kind of soothing, and calm. Just really pretty and beautiful and –
VOICE 9: Peaceful.
VOICE 8: Very peaceful.
VOICE 5: This is not a Madonna sitting on the throne in fancy clothes with her child on her knee. This is a Madonna that is bending down to scoop up a baby, just like every single mom does. She’s very approachable and very loving, and very, very human.
A few years ago, I was applying for a fellowship, and part of the process was that I had to articulate to a panel why I studied art history in the first place, and why I was now interested in moving my career into radio. The panel was skeptical; the idea that someone could traverse from the visual to the audio, you have to understand, tends to twist a few panties. And in trying to articulate why this trajectory made so much sense to me meant putting my finger on something much more basic. What I loved about art history was exactly what I love about radio. Storytelling.
I don’t need to explain how radio is about storytelling – that much is obvious. But art history is entirely about storytelling too. How many times have you walked by an object at an art museum that you never would have looked twice at, and then the wall text or the audio guide or someone with a badge, like me, chased after you and said, no wait! Come back! You don’t have to know everything. Just look at this one thing. And let me tell you just about this one thing. This one thing is everything, and it’s probably because the artist was looking at this one guy, and this one guy was doing something so subversive, and so this artist did something equally subversive but updated for his or her own time period, and you can tell that this was both totally revolutionary and indebted to the past just by looking at this one thing. And then you think, well, cool! And then I walk by five minutes later and you’re standing there with your buddy and pointing out this one thing and how it’s a shorthand for something so much bigger, and suddenly the story is passing itself on, and this previously inaccessible artwork is now all yours, and that’s something.
I’m telling you: storytelling. It’s the best. It opens up something from nothing; it sets your curiosity on fire. I love being told stories, because, really who doesn’t? Don’t you guys have nephews? I mean, why else do we sing songs or listen to podcasts? And I especially love finding dynamic and compelling ways to tell stories, especially stories about artworks, because it means that a whole new batch of people are pointing that one thing out to other people, and a stereotypically dusty discipline like art history is brought to life. And though I never actually got that fellowship, being challenged to explain art history in these terms ended up being much, much more valuable to me. It basically gave birth to this show.
The thing is, when you take a closer look at art history itself, you see that there are actually two stories being told: there’s my storytelling, the story that the person with the badge tells the visitor. And there’s the story that the artist tells the viewer, through the object. Every art object, almost without exception, is telling a story. And this is especially true, of course, when it comes to religious art, which requires its artists to tell a very specific story to a very specific audience. And you’d think this would be easy: religious art, of course, has a script to work off of – a bible, a Koran. But with the convenience of the script comes the challenge to artists to tell these perennial stories in new and dynamic ways. After all, you want your viewers to actually pay attention. All of the major periods in art, both across time and across the globe, went back and forth as to what was the most effective way, stylistically, to tell religious stories, and today, for our purposes, we’ll focus on Western art, and on the bible.
So how do you get your viewers’ attention? Take the Medieval period, for instance – and forgive the large, overgeneralized brush I’m painting with, because we’re talking a stretch of time over about 800 years. Artisans during that time weren’t particularly known for their subtlety, and leaned instead on scare tactics to capture eyeballs. We talked about this in episode 9 when we looked at 20th century German Expressionism, and how it found its roots in the raw, expressive images found on 12th century Romanesque cathedrals. These cathedrals featured mosaics of demons and torture, the truly grotesque consequences for passersby choosing not to go inside and save their eternal souls from damnation. It’s shocking and creepy, and an example of highly successful storytelling. The visceral reaction one has to seeing the distorted, elongated form of Christ nailed to the cross, or the twisted anguish on Mary’s face as she holds her son’s body, gets you in the gut. The suffering depicted becomes something we need to push away, something unimaginable. It distills the takeaways of the bible down to, Jesus, never let this be me.
Things began to shift in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. People started developing a taste for subtlety again, for beauty. Didactic, expressive spectacles turn into naturalistic, relatable portraits of sensitively-observed life. You start seeing the facades of Gothic cathedrals with figures that look more like us, or at least idealized versions of us. And you start, in earnest, to see artists drawing inspiration from the realistic depiction of the human form that we saw in ancient Greek and Roman sculptures – this is of course the basis for the Renaissance, or the revival of antiquity, that characterized the art of the later-14th, 15th, and 16th centuries in Western Europe. As we discussed at length in episode 25 when we looked at the Mona Lisa, this was the age of the artist, the old masters sought out for their talent, their fabulous rivalries with one another, the cult of their individual personalities, and some truly gorgeous paintings and sculpture that focused on humanism and impeccable perspective. When we talk about the high Renaissance, we tend to focus on Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, among others. And you might notice that there’s a ninja turtle missing from this pack. And that’s because Donatello didn’t round out this foursome, he pre-dated it, and very much influenced it. It’s easy to look at the art of the Medieval period and the art of the Renaissance and think that there was just some cosmic shift from one style of using art as a means for storytelling to a very, very different one. But someone had to go first. And one of those someones was Donatello.
Donatello, nicknamed from Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, was born Florence around 1386. He was born into the arts, the son of a member of the Florentine wool guild, and therefore eligible to work in trades early on, training first in the workshop of a goldsmith. In his early career, he worked with two of the heavy hitters of the early Italian Renaissance – Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to design the dome of the Florence cathedral, or the Duomo, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, whom Donatello actually assisted in his design and construction of Ghiberti’s greatest achievement, the doors of the Florence baptistry. With Brunelleschi in particular, Donatello had the opportunity to make history. The two participated in excavating ruins in Rome, diving deeply into ancient Roman art that would become tremendously influential in his aesthetic and, really, the aesthetic of the entire Renaissance. It’s neat to see elements of Roman art begin to crop up in the work of early Renaissance artists, Donatello in particular, as they ushered in this new aesthetic era. Art historians tend to sound this particular trumpet by focusing on his foppish, supple adolescent statue of David, the first free-standing sculpture since ancient Rome, or on the Gattamelata, Donatello’s massive equestrian monument which was also the first of its kind since antiquity. But I’m more taken with his early sculpture of St. John the Evangelist, completed between 1410 and 1411. It’s a colossal marble piece, originally placed in a niche of the Duomo, and an unequivocal step towards rendering the naturalism of a human figure as the Romans might have.
Ancient Roman society was famous for venerating their elders, for equating wrinkles with wisdom, and here, Donatello captures St. John not as the younger man in the story that he’s known for, but as a wise, aged prophet years later. His hands, in particular, are extraordinary. If you want to see a clear step towards the rendering of an individual’s personality in Renaissance art, just look at the expressiveness of their hands. Really, there’s no need to depict hands with this much sensitivity, other than to just remind us how essential they are in our own lives, our own experiencing of the world. It’s as though Donatello looked at the same bible, those same takeways, and distilled them down to: Jesus. This is me.
And this incredible sensitivity to the humanity inherent in these stories is carved, so delicately, into this sculpture, Madonna of the Clouds, or the Shaw Madonna, so named for Quincy Adam Shaw, its American owner and benefactor. It’s an object so small and so subtle, located in a quiet, off the beaten path hallway of Renaissance sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, flush inside a protected case, and if you weren’t looking for it, or if my badge and I didn’t chase you down, you’d never know that you walked by one of the most precious objects the museum owns. It’s one of only a handful of Donatellos in North America, and truly, the most exquisite. And while the story being told is a familiar one – the Virgin Mary seated with the Christ child and surrounded by angels – it’s actually being told in a way that is radically new. And yet it is through this radical newness that we feel like she is all the more familiar, as human as we are.
The sculpture was originally a personal devotional object, unusual in its square shape, and meant to be held up close and personal, which gave Donatello permission to carve it with such a considerable amount of nuance. He further bends the rules both in terms of the iconography and the technique, and we’ll take these one at a time. The iconography, that is, the visual symbolism that we learn to read to understand the larger story, is actually a mishmash of two different conventional renderings of the young Madonna and child: Madonna of Humility and Madonna in Glory. The iconography, of course, is closely aligned with the name: Madonna of Humility is usually shown seated on the ground, flora blooming around her, intimately playful with her baby, and deeply human. Madonna in Glory is the opposite: heavenly, regal, divine, distant. But see what we have here: Madonna in heaven, surrounded by cherubs, but sitting on heaven’s floor. She’s human, intimately cradling her son, who cuddles back, lifting his chubby little baby arm against her breast. Her hands – again, those hands – are so tenderly carved, so astutely as to even distinguish between pressing against firm baby flesh and diaphanous fabric. There is no need for Donatello to have done this, other than to make this moment in the heavens above us feel as real as possible.
Because, as he knew, without this authenticity, we would never truly feel the emotions underpinning this scene. We’re so used to bible stories being just that, stories that speak to something so much higher and huger than us, that we often overlook what those stories are actually saying. This is a mother who is protectively holding her child, knowing she will someday lose him. And this is the power of Donatello’s storytelling: he isn’t trying to scare us into action, but, instead, quietly lure us into empathy. Into really feeling the text. Maybe the suffering of biblical figures is more than one can imagine, but here, the idea of holding your child close and foreseeing the loss is something painfully imaginable. And therefore all the more unimaginable.
And the powerfully subtle emotionalism of this story is indebted to Donatello’s technique. He carves a bas relief, which is essentially what protrudes when you carve an image into a surface, but with a technique that he developed himself, called relievio schacchiato. It’s basically just a very shallow carving – we’re talking millimeters, the sparest carving possible to create this kind of expressiveness, this kind of depth. It’s almost as though he’s using the chisel as a paintbrush, or a pencil stroke – it’s that delicate, that graceful. And, I should add parenthetically that we would never be able to make out the nuance without some truly ingenious lighting design on the part of the MFA, who has taken special pains to make sure that the sculpture is lit diagonally from the top right, emphasizing every tonal variation. The story goes that the Canadian art historian Sister Wendy had wanted to include Madonna of the Clouds in her television series, but the sculpture was too darkly lit to film properly, which subsequently motivated the museum to up their game.
But back to the object. It’s with this immaculate lighting that we see what Donatello is able to accomplish with such a light touch, with so little actual depth: the way her right leg falls open towards us, the way the angels in the background are sketched finer and finer until their wings seem to disappear, as though caught behind a cloud. And it makes the deepest carvings – her profile, carved like a dignified Roman cameo or coin, and his gently resting arm – all the more visible, all the better to pull our eye to the most crucial elements of the narrative. And the rest simply softens into a rippling flutter of clouds and fabric. Her drapery flows into the heavens like water, indistinguishable from one another, and creating a gorgeous sense of volume and symbolic weight. It’s uncanny to get this lithe, dynamic flow out of stone. And Donatello’s ability to do just this must have had a powerful impact on the sculptors and architects who came after him and realized that stone was capable of being so fluid. It’s hard to imagine that Frank Lloyd Wright, as he planned the rippling flagstone that would become the living room floor of Falling Water, the house he built atop a waterfall in Pennsylvania, wasn’t inspired, however indirectly, by this exquisite little Madonna.
The fundamental injustice of subtlety is how easy it is to overlook. If you didn’t take a moment to sit with this sculpture, with her hands, with her flutter, then you’d never see Medieval religious storytelling passing the baton of Dontatello’s chisel to the Renaissance. You’d never appreciate how a small, protected little sculpture hidden away at the museum could speak to you so poignantly about beauty of loving protection. So consider passing this story on, this previously inaccessible artwork that is now all yours. And that’s something.
Special thanks to the intrepid museum goers at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go the The Lonely Palette.com, or follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram, where I regularly post bonus images from each episode, @thelonelypalette, or like us on Facebook, and if you’re a fan of the show and looking for a way to tell me so, the best thing you could do is leave a rating and review at iTunes. And the only thing better than best is supporting the show on Patreon.
Today’s patron of the day is a dear friend from a dear place. I met Michael Foreman when we were both fresh-faced newbie songwriters at a deeply important songwriting retreat to both of us, and he has continued to be one of the most supportive and genuine folks I’ve met. To wit: he once compared me to George Harrison, which is a compliment I will never, ever forget. So, Michael, thank you so much. Be like Michael at www.patreon.com/lonelypalette.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a new collective of idea-driven podcasts. If you’re a woman, or a human, looking for a particularly powerful episode on body issues, then take a listen to episode 11 of Ministry of Ideas, Forbidden Fruit. It’s extraordinary. Check it out at ministryofideas.org.