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Donatello, Madonna of the Clouds

Donatello, Madonna of the Clouds, c. 1425--35, marble, 33.1 x 32 cm / 13 1/16 x 12 5/8 inches (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Male Voiceover: We're in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and we're looking at Donatello's Madonna of the Clouds. It's this small marble relief. Female Voiceover: And it's square, which is unusual, and it's what historians call a Rilievo Schiacciato. When we say relief, you might have been thinking about a sculpture that had figures that stood out more from the background, but this is a flattened relief, where there's only the few millimeters that come up from the background of the marble. Male Voiceover: And yet, what I find so remarkable is that Donatello is able to achieve a great sense of depth, despite, or perhaps, because of the flatness of the relief carving. Female Voiceover: This is a technique that he developed very much to help to create and illusion of space; something that was so important to early Renaissance artists. Male Voiceover: Looking at this carving, I'm reminded of the extraordinary strides of naturalism that took place in the 15th century, developed by artists like Donatello, by Masaccio, by Mantegna and others. Female Voiceover: I think, very much, Donatello wants to convince us of the realism of this scene. Male Voiceover: Well, look at Mary, she's got real volume, real weight; her right leg seems to fall open towards us. There really is this sense of mass and volume, even though it's this little marble carved just millimeters deep. Female Voiceover: Donatello spent so much time on those folds of drapery that really show the form of the body underneath, but that also take on a lovely life of their own as they swoop up and around Mary's thighs, or around her shoulders, or that headress that she wears, where the folds flip over one another; so the curves, the rhyming curves of the drapery echo the form of the clouds below. Mary, in a way, becomes one with the heavens. Male Voiceover: There are these beautiful, intimate passages. Look at the way that the body relates to that drapery, the way it sort of falls over it, and you really get a sense of Donatello paying attention to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Her left foot pulls the drapery forward, and makes it taught and creates that wonderful sense of volume. Female Voiceover: Or we could look at her right hand. The tips of Mary's fingers go into the drapery and we get a sense of the drapery pulling around her hand. Male Voiceover: Or her other hand, which clasps Christ, and especially his shoulder, in the way that she presses flat his flesh. Female Voiceover: There's no other reaason to do this than to convince us of the naturalism of this. Male Voiceover: Except that here she is on a cloud-like space that almost looks as if it's a kind of stream, on the one hand is naturalism, but on the other hand, she's surrounded by these little angles with halos. Female Voiceover: But, that's exactly what the early Renaissance is, right? It's this odd combination of realism, of paying attention to the body, of paying attention to an illusion of space, of paying attention to human emotion; and we certainly see that here in the relationship of Mary and Christ, this kind of tenderness. We pay attention to all of those for real human experiences, but at the same time we're looking at a spiritual scene. Male Voiceover: Look at the variety of kinds of carving that are in this small piece of marble. Mary's face is the most deeply carved of anything on this panel. You have a deepest shadow that's outlining her profile, and it reminds me of an ancient Roman cameo, the way that she's in perfect profile, but also the way that the shadow outlines that face. Female Voiceover: There's also shadow by her eyes and her nose; creates a sense of sadness as she tips her head forward toward Christ. Male Voiceover: There is a sense of melancholy throughout this entire image. These are not joyous angels. There's clearly a sense of the eventual tragedy. Female Voiceover: Well, she looks as though she's protecting him; she encloses him within the form of her body and brings him towards her, what seems to be a protective gesture. Male Voiceover: She is monumental. Christ is monumental. The angels that surround them immediately are fairly substantial, but Donatello's able to achieve a real sense of depth by reducing the scale of the angels as we move back in space, and also by reducing the depth of the carving so that the angels in the upper corner and the upper left corner are carved in the most shallow possible way. Female Voiceover: Look at, for example, the angel on the upper right, the tip of her wing is not even carved, it seems to just move back into space; so there is this sense of atmosphere that these figures seem to exist in. Male Voiceover: And yet, Donatello was a able to achieve this extraordinary expressiveness in just millimeters. (lighthearted music)