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Donatello, Feast of Herod

Donatello, Feast of Herod, panel on the baptismal font of Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy, gilded bronze, 1423–27. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - [Steve] We're in the Palazzo Strozzi, in a special exhibition devoted to the early Renaissance artist, Donatello. Looking at a sculpture that is usually in another Italian city, it was made to be part of a baptismal font in the baptistry of Sienna. - [Beth] And this scene shows the Feast of Herod. From the gospel of Matthew we learn when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias, Salome, danced before the company and pleased Herod so that he promised to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter." And the king was sorry but he had John beheaded and his head was brought on a platter. - [Steve] And that is precisely the moment that we're seeing, John's head is on a platter being presented to King Herod at the extreme left. And we see Salome still in a dance like serpentine pose. Her body almost like the curve of an ass, showing that sensuality and Donatello's love of the human body. But it is that sensuality contrasted with the horror of John's severed head, it powers this image. - [Beth] And so we could follow the story in a continuous narrative that is we have several moments of the story unfolding. In the front, the presentation of the head to Herod, in the middle ground, a musician who's playing a stringed instrument perhaps to accompany Salome for her dance, and then we step back further and we see the head of St. John being presented on a platter to several figures. Perhaps one of them is Herodias and Salome's mother or Salome herself. - [Steve] But all of this is wrought in bronze that has been gilded that is covered with a thin layer of gold so that the object sparkles. - [Beth] Donatello is giving us this story that's unfolding in such a dramatic and engaging way that we can't help, but be drawn in. All set within this very deep space created by the use of linear perspective. - [Steve] Donatello was a friend of the architect Brunelleschi who had developed one point linear perspective and had applied it to drawing. Here Donatello applies it to sculpture but its sculptural relief that is almost like painting in bronze. - [Beth] We think about relief sculpture creating space by using high relief for the figures who are closest to us and lower relief for the figures who are further away. And Donatello is certainly doing that here but he's spending so much attention on that low flattened relief that is creating that deep illusion into space. We have this series of round Roman arches at several levels that move back into space. Part of the narrative, in fact unfolding in the background. So what Donatello is doing is using the linear perspective to help tell the narrative. - [Steve] The composition is so unexpected. Instead of having the main group in the center, he's parted the main figures and pushed them to the left and the right to expose the floor so that the linear perspective of the tiles can lead us back into space. One of the figures is leaving the scene perhaps too horrified by what they're seeing. - [Beth] It is the drama of the moment, the reaction of the figures that is clearly most important to Donatello. And so that rift in the center, this upside down triangle that's formed between one figure on the left, who gestures toward the head of St. John the Baptist saying, "Look at what you've done!" His face is in horror. And then on the right side, the figure who pulls away and covers his eyes, and even Salome herself. Although in this graceful pose with drapery, that looks like it comes right from ancient Roman sculpture, that clings to her body and shows her movement, even she seems to push her chin back also perhaps pulling away from the site of the head of St. John the Baptist. - [Steve] So this violent emotional impact in the foreground is contrast so strongly with the clarity and precision, the cool geometry of the ancient Roman architecture, those perfect verticals, those perfect semi-circles which speak to a kind of rational that speak to a kind of order in sharp distinction with the disorder of human reaction, of human emotion. What's fascinating is to think about this object not here in the museum, but on the baptismal font where baptisms are still performed. This is an image of the death of John the Baptist. And yet this is a place that infants are brought to be baptized, a joyful moment but one whose story reaches this horrid climax. - [Beth] This story unfolding within this realistic architecture figures that move and gesture naturalistically and tell us this story in a way that looks as though it's taking place in our world. (upbeat music)