David in Bronze and Marble

The David of the Bible conquered Jerusalem, committed adultery, lost a son, and put down two rebellions. Most famously, he fought Goliath. The book of Samuel tells that David defeated Goliath, prize warrior of the Philistines, using only a slingshot and a staff. And this moment – not any other from his long and illustrious biography – captured the imagination of Renaissance artists.

Michelangelo, David (1501-04) Galleria dell' Accademia, Florence, Italy

Michelangelo, David (1501-04)
Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence, Italy

Completed in 1504, Michelangelo’s marble David stands eleven feet taller than life. His hands are large and his arms are long; his head is heavy, though it does not hang. It is a classically muscled and attractive youth, not a historical vision of David, who lived around 1000 BCE. Also unrealistically, the sculpture appears very slender when viewed from the side – almost a flat vertical plane – because the artist worked from a block of marble already hacked by another.

Had the artist worked with a whole block, the stone would still have involved technical challenges. Marble is hard and fairly dense (around 2.7 metric tons per square meter), but brittle enough that marble figures can require special supports.  The artists of antiquity used metal joins and dowels to hold limbs, heads, and accessories in place. Renaissance sculptors and their successors rejected that technique, relying instead on occasionally awkward landscape elements to keep sculptures standing. In keeping with this, a small tree trunk curves backward from David’s calf.

Michelangelo loved marble in spite of the struggle. He wrote sonnets honoring the stone. One especially famous piece from 1538-44 outlines his “subtractive” process of carving: “Not even the best of artists has any conception/that a single marble block does not contain/within its excess, and that is only attained/by the hand that obeys the intellect.” The figure already existed within the block; Michelangelo merely needed to uncover it.

There is more to that story. The paradigmatic master of marble (and paint, which he despised) also worked in bronze. Only sketches and partial works seemed to have survived – until this year, when researchers at the University of Cambridge identified “Nude Bacchants Riding Panthers” as likely products of Michelangelo.  The anatomy of the two bacchants, each a meter-high, recalls nudes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he painted between 1508 and 1512. Preparatory drawings for the sculptures and neutron x-ray imaging suggest that Michelangelo created them between 1500 and 1510.

Donatello, David (1440s?) Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Donatello, David (1440s?)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Historical hints tantalize scholars all the more. Michelangelo sculpted a two-thirds-length bronze David, after a bronze version by Donatello from the 1440s. The earlier David has its own peculiarities.  Deliberately androgynous, it can resemble a female form if viewed from its left. A feather brushes the leg; this is the attribute of the Greek god Hermes. Scholars have argued that Donatello intended this caressing, mythological feather and the androgyny to suggest his own sexuality

But the ambiguities served a political purpose. David’s Medici commissioners feared conservative Florentines, who might object to the nude depiction of a biblical figure (the city icon, no less). If the sculpture did not show David – or if anyone could believe that it did not show David – the problem would go away. Moreover, the figure appears as young and weak as he does suggestive. The left elbow and knee are akimbo; the right arm looks too skinny to wield the massive sword that it grasps.

Michelangelo, master of virile nudes, must have played on this subtext. He started his bronze David in 1502, on commission for French lord Pierre de Rohan-Gié.  An extant sketch from this project shows a strap and pouch, as well as a hand curved to hold a stone. The completed work traveled to France and stayed there at least until the French Revolution, when it disappeared.

Researchers can only speculate about techniques that Michelangelo might have used to cast this David. Neutron scans of “Nude Bacchants Riding Panthers” reveal thick walls, which were typical of Renaissance bronzes. Donatello had invented new sculptural techniques for different media, including the use of clay-soaked cloth to create detailed molds and a method for very-low-relief carving. Michelangelo did not share Donatello’s mastery of both modeling and carving, focusing instead on the latter. His subtractive technique needed blocks, not molds, and the disegno (draftsmanship) of his designs emphasizes line and plane over shine and color.

Michelangelo’s disegno and use of marble came to define 16th-century Italian art, and for good reason. They were even newer than he realized. History knew the marbles of Classical Greece and Rome as testaments to line and form taken on their own terms – but the Parthenon and other works of the period were once polychromed.  Other European traditions favored hue at least as much as form and material. Spanish sculptors – whether working in wood, marble, or terracotta – hired painters to color their works.

An expert on Classical sculpture as well as a conservator, Donatello incorporated explicitly antiquarian references. Some historians argue that bronze was for Renaissance and Baroque artists, the most antiquarian of media – and Donatello loved bronze. Goliath’s helmet in the bronze David includes a cameo copying a Roman sculpture from the Medici collection. Meanwhile, Donatello’s marble figures – notably, the Zuccone – wear the togas and drapery of Classical orators.

David danced across fault lines in Renaissance art: biblical vs. mythological, sacred vs. secular, contemporary vs. Classical, bronze vs. marble.  But neither Donatello’s nor Michelangelo’s sculpture contains that tension. One flirts, one glares, and both map the geniuses who created them.


4 Million Bricks: How They Built the Dome and Installed the Art

Rodrigo Soldon

Rodrigo Soldon

Florence Cathedral is architecture’s greatest coup de foudre. The literal sense of the term is relevant here; lightning struck the cupola twelve times between 1500 and 1700. But the idiomatic sense – passion and shock – means even more.

The cathedral is a paradigm in the history of engineering, a legend in art, and the touchstone of a storied city. Its paradoxes and personalities have long since become legend: Michelangelo’s David, which could not make it onto the cathedral and ended up in the square. The Zuccone, so close to real, that its creator Donatello told it to speak. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s prophets and gateways. Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome.

Scholars have spent five centuries trying to understand just how that dome came to be and how those sculptures made it onto the building beneath.

Paolo Uccello Portrait of Brunelleschi, 1550

Paolo Uccello
Portrait of Brunelleschi, 1550

Brunelleschi and Ghiberti had both competed for the role of lead architect and they purported to share the building project. But Brunelleschi revealed his designs to no one – he was never content to let Ghiberti get the better of him or to accept help. He even played sick at one point during construction. When work could not continue as a result, it was clear who the dome’s real master was.

Knowing almost nothing about it, the dome’s financiers and handlers did not quite trust Brunelleschi’s vision. According to Giorgio Vasari, renowned art historian from 16th-century Tuscany, Florentine officials posed a single task for architects aspiring to design the dome: make an egg stand on end. None of them could do it, until Brunelleschi hit the egg against a marble panel such that it stood upright. The other architects protested – surely they could have done that! Brunelleschi told them that they could also design the dome, too, if they knew his plans.

The cupola had challenged 14th-century architects, because the cathedral’s octagonal walls demanded a massive, 182.5 feet-wide dome to cover them. Such construction would normally require an expensive technique with unwieldy wooden scaffolding, called “centering.” Brunelleschi, avoiding that option, decided that two vaults were better than one. Workmen built one layer of the cupola and used that layer as support while building another.  They would continue to rely on the crawlspace in between after the dome’s completion, for repairs and maintenance.

These grand plans did not emerge in a vacuum. Brunelleschi, who was after all a Renaissance man, researched Classical and contemporary architecture in Florence and Rome, as well as the latest in mathematics and the sciences. Records show that the Pantheon dome, crowned by a circular hole, may have provided some inspiration. The architect mapped the distribution of weight in the dome, angling individual stones to evenly and safely distribute the growing pressure during construction.

The dome essentially comprised four interlocking Gothic arches. A network of zig-zagging brick functioned like chains, keeping the vault ribs from ripping outward and creating a strong inverted arch in each wall. Metal elements supported scaffolding for artists creating frescoes and other pieces within the dome.



With the dome itself in place, the cathedral only needed icing on the cake: a lantern and the orb-and-cross symbolizing the cardinal’s domain and St. Peter’s in Rome. But no airy buttercream, these ritual adornments weighed several thousand tons. By this point in the 1430s, Brunelleschi had conceived a warehouse worth of new cranes and construction equipment for the Florence Cathedral. Ever secretive, he had committed none of these designs to paper. Fortunately for posterity, Ghiberti’s grandson Buonaccorso did. 60 years ago, a scholar named Gustina Scaglia working on her Ph.D. thesis at New York University, uncovered those documents in the National Library in Florence.

Buonaccorso Ghiberti Sketch for one of Brunelleschi’s hoists

Buonaccorso Ghiberti Sketch for one of Brunelleschi’s hoists

Medieval “great wheel” hoists had relied on men turning a wheel. The documents show that Brunelleschi’s update instead employed oxen to pull ropes that ran through a frame of cogged wheels. Another invention of his, the reverse gear, allowed oxen to walk in the same direction while pieces came down. Meanwhile, a wooden frame hoist would place the lantern and the orb and cross atop the cupola. Brunelleschi managed to lift the cranes high enough to lift these decorations by creating a temporary wooden framework across windows at the top of the dome.

Ingegno, Renaissance engineers, came equipped with the technologies of Antiquity as well as their own inventions. According to some sources, quarrying marble blocks was the most difficult part of the production of monuments. Roman building sites often saw stones lifted into place before sculptors balanced on scaffolds to carve them. But by the Renaissance, artists worked in studios and expected others to lift their finished works. The building staff of the Opera del Duomo, the best in the business, may have relied on another Roman technique – tilted sledges and wooden beams – to slide sculptures into place. Bronze, lighter than stone, always posed less of a challenge. For heavier pieces, builders and mechanics of the period would have strung their cranes with slings attached to dozens of ropes. Somehow, marble sculptures, each weighing well over a ton, survived to the day when foam and forklifts could ease their passage.

The stone coup de foudre, which looks to stand of its own organic accord, took 100 years of blood, sweat, and tears. Brunelleschi’s brainchild remains the world’s largest masonry dome, both grounded and soaring in the center of Florence. It demands to be seen from the tiled floor below or from a balcony somewhere nearby. But if you can’t make it to Italy, Brunelleschi’s model for the dome and lantern will be on view through the spring at MOBIA.


Rodrigo Soldon

Rodrigo Soldon

Check It Out: The Winchester Bible

Last chance!

On view only until this Sunday, March 8, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition The Winchester Bible: A Masterpiece of Medieval Europe features pages from two volumes of the sumptuously illuminated Winchester Bible. Away from its home at Winchester Cathedral due to renovations, this medieval treasure is being exhibited for the first time in the United States.

An obedient Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac. Photo by John Crook. Winchester Cathedral.

An obedient Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac. Photo by John Crook. Winchester Cathedral.

Probably commissioned in the mid-12th century by bishop and royal Henry of Blois (c. 1098–1171), the manuscript, according to the museum, “consists of four bound volumes whose pages measure approximately 23 inches high by 15 inches wide (58 by 39 centimeters). The text of 468 folios was written over a period of thirty years by a single scribe with at least six different gifted painters applying expensive pigments, including lapis lazuli and gold, to calf-skin parchment. Their ambitious work was never completed.”

Supplementing the lavish decoration and biblical illustrations are contemporary works from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collection.

If you are interested in illuminated manuscripts, book conservation, medieval art, or simply want a rare chance to glimpse an important European artifact, head over to The Met before this exhibition closes.  You can also read more in-depth about the Bible on the The Met’s blog.

The Quattrocento – An Overview

The Quattrocentro was a place almost as much as a time.

The Battistero di San Giovanni, the Florence Baptistery, sits on the Piazza Duomo, northwest of the Arno River in the center of Florence. This famously octagonal basilica includes bronze doors sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti.  In 1401, Ghiberti had bested Filippo Brunelleschi to create the doors, intended to depict scenes from the Bible. And with that, the Quattrocentro, from the Italian millequattrocentro for 1400, had officially begun.

Master of Castel di Sangro Flagellation First half of the 15th century Maiella stone Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence (deposit of Gallerie Fiorentine, inv. Bargello sculture 487) Image Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Master of Castel di Sangro
First half of the 15th century
Maiella stone
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence (deposit of Gallerie Fiorentine, inv. Bargello sculture 487)
Image Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

The stylistic and iconographic content of the images on those doors – a focus on the New Testament, a sense of depth created by architecture, and elongated figures – spread fast. By the middle of the 15th century, they had come to the Abruzzo region of Italy. There, the anonymous Master of Castel di Sangro created limestone relief panels that closely mimicked Ghiberti’s doors. Now on view at MOBIA, the panels suggest how works from one square in Florence came to define 15th-century European art.

“Portrait of Pope Martinus V” after Pisanello

After Pisanello
Portrait of Pope Martinus V

Other, religio-political developments accompanied the shifts in Quattrocentro art and architecture. From 1414 to 1418, several hundred bishops, abbots, and governors met in Constance, Germany to resolve a problem that had pressed on Western Catholicism since a schismin 1378: the existence of not one, not even two, but three popes. Finally in November 1417, Oddone Colona, a cardinal from Rome, became Pope Martin V of a unified Europe.

A Florentine, Cosimo de’Medici, had accompanied Antipope John XXIII to the Council of Constance and upon return to Italy, he consolidated power. He and his descendants effectively ruled Florence from 1434 to 1737, sponsoring art, quashing opponents, and raking in gold.

Florence was a prize for whomever could control it. With the other Italian city-states, it flourished throughout the Quattrocentro.  Mediterranean trade routes sent untold numbers of goods and gold through the city’s markets and into the European interior. Three men growing up in 14th-century Florence – Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Dante – had gained the sobriquet “The Three Fountains” for the ink that flowed from their pens to form some of the West’s iconic literary works. The mellifluous Italian of Dante and Petrarch would become standard for all of Italy, into the modern era.

"Mercato Vecchio, Florence", 1881 Otto Henry Bacher Etching

Otto Henry Bacher
Mercato Vecchio, Florence, 1881

Artists such as Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as “Donatello,” Nanni di Banco, and Luca dell Robbia (whose works are also on view at MOBIA) took this world by storm. For the first quarter of the 15th century, Northern Europe favored the International Gothic style, which promoted elegance, animated lines, naturalism in lieu of symbolic stateliness (especially for human forms), and use of negative space. Ghiberti applied some of these tropes, yet he and his colleagues on the Piazza Duomo projects ran ahead of the times. They revived Classicism: stasis, idealized forms, symmetry, and balance. The objective of these formal choices was beauty inspired by nature rather than naturalism per se. Leon Battista Alberti, an artist and author of the Quattrocentro, codified the model set by Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Donatello in Della pittura and De statua, treatises cum instruction manuals for the High Renaissance artist. The new paradigm venerated the artist via substantial commissions and high expectations for works just as lovely as they were didactic.

15th-century map of Constantinople

15th-century map of Constantinople

In 1453, just after Della pittura and before De statua, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, frightening Christian principalities and upending Mediterranean Sea routes. Merchants and missionaries needed new passages to Asia and some attempted to go westward, happening upon the Americas in 1492. Rumblings against the Church of Rome gained force, meanwhile, in both humanist and Protestant circles.

The new money and growing pains that gripped Florence would spread northward. The 15th century meant change and conflict. But inside the studio of the Quattrocentro artist, all was order and light.


Coming Soon to MOBIA…

Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio Virgin Mary of the Annunciation, late 14th century Marble, 144 × 44 × 30 cm (56¾ × 17¼ × 117⁄8 in.) Opera di Santa Maria de Fiore, inv. No 2005/277 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio
Virgin Mary of the Annunciation (det.), late 14th century
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Are you stateside but longing to see some of the beautiful Renaissance art Florence has to offer?  Well Florence is coming to you next Friday, February 20, when MOBIA debuts Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.

23 masterpieces of early Florentine Renaissance sculpture—most never seen outside Italy—will be exhibited at MOBIA as the centerpiece of the Museum’s tenth anniversary season. MOBIA will be the sole worldwide venue for this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. These works—by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Nanni di Banco, Luca della Robbia, and others—were made in the first decades of the 15th century for Florence Cathedral (“Il Duomo”), which was then in the last phase of its construction, and are figural complements to Brunelleschi’s soaring dome, conveying an analogous sense of courage and human potential. Like the dome, these statues of prophets and saints express the spiritual tension of a faith-driven humanism destined to transform Western culture.

This tightly focused exhibition features works all created as components of larger programs for the exterior and interior of the Cathedral from around 1400 until 1450. They include statues and reliefs by Nanni di Banco and Donatello from the lateral entry known as the “Porta della Mandorla”; two larger-than-life seated evangelist figures made to flank the church’s main western portal, again by Nanni and Donatello; two of Donatello’s life-size figures of Old Testament personages from the bell tower; and three of the hexagonal reliefs carved by Luca della Robbia, also from the bell tower. In addition, the exhibition includes the two bronze heads with which Donatello adorned his cantoria, or singing gallery, inside the Cathedral in 1439. Also on view will be two Brunelleschi wood models of the dome—one relating to the overall structure and the other to the titanic lantern—and three early 15th-century stone reliefs derived from scenes on Ghiberti’s first bronze doors for the Baptistery facing the Cathedral.

The significance of the exhibition derives in part from its single-site specificity. Sculpture in the Age of Donatello brings together objects made for the same location by artists who knew each other personally, offering a moving, close-up look at the project which more than any other shaped the early Florentine Renaissance: the completion of “Il Duomo”.

To purchase tickets for Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, please click here

Click here to view related Public Programs

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Throughout the exhibition’s four-month run (it closes on June 14) Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will be featuring blog posts that delve further into the historical and artistic contexts of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello.

The History of Nativities

García del Barco, Triptych of the Nativity (1475-1500)

García del Barco, Triptych of the Nativity (1475-1500)

On a cold, wintry night, in a rocky outcropping overlooking a valley, animals stood on a bed of hay surrounding a simple manger.  People gathered to worship, one of them looking towards the manger and sighing over the sight of a newborn boy nestled within.  The year was… 1223.

The account of the birth of Jesus is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Between the two, the dramatic story is filled with details of a woman delivering her child in a stable, shepherds leaving their flocks at the insistence of angels, visiting wise men, a significant star, a jealous and violent king, and a poor family’s escape to a foreign country.  While the words were first recorded in the first century C.E., the image of that holy birth is most firmly ingrained in our modern cultural mindset because of nativity scenes.  Whether acted out with living people and animals or reproduced as models in various sizes (called crèches), the image of Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and the assorted other players is a recognizable and long-standing visual traditional integral to the Christmas season.

Josefa de Obidos, St.Francis and St. Claire of Assisi in Adoration of the Infant Christ (1647)

Josefa de Obidos, St.Francis and St. Claire of Assisi in Adoration of the Infant Christ (1647)

The first recorded instance of a Nativity scene comes from St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), a medieval theologian who wrote about the life of the founder of his religious order, St. Francis of Assisi.  Bonaventure describes Francis journeying to the Italian town of Grecio for Christmas in 1223 and, having moved Midnight Mass to an outdoor space to accommodate the large congregation, being inspired to recreate the scene of Jesus’s birth with a live ox and ass.  An onlooking soldier called Master John of Grecio is recorded as having a vision of the newborn king – whom Francis loving called the Babe of Bethlehem – sleeping in the empty manger.

The practice of reenacting the Nativity story became popular in an atmosphere where the written stories of the Gospels were brought to life – literally – through mystery plays.  Much like church art was used to communicate religious messages to laypeople, these tableaus, aside from entertaining, educated the Catholic masses and subsequently formed pictorial associations in people’s minds beyond having the Gospels read to them in Latin during Mass.

Danish Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

Danish Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

Nativities have developed over time less as accurate visual interpretations of Scripture and more as all-inclusive representations of the traditional elements of the Nativity story as a whole.  For example, no specific animals were mentioned in the Gospel accounts as having been present at the event, yet donkeys, sheep, and other animals have been represented in the stable since the first documented nativity scene.  The number of Wise Men who came to laud the babe are not numbered in Scripture, but nativities typically include three, one bearing each documented gift: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And the Wise Men commingle with the adoring shepherds, though the former are mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel and the latter solely in Luke’s.  The stable in which the Holy Family is housed, meanwhile, is often topped by an angel, though the New Testament telling has a “multitude of the heavenly host” filling the sky above the fields in the region, not one lone messenger hovering above the baby.

Living nativities and large-scale crèches occupy church grounds and interiors around the world.  New York City has its fair share, sometimes in secular settings.  The famous Radio City Christmas Spectacular, performed throughout the holiday season at Radio City Music Hall, features a living nativity in its program.

Depictions of the Nativity vary as much as the traditions and cultures of believers worldwide.  If you would like to view a sampling of a variety of such crèches, visit the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.  Located less than 30 miles from Center City Philadelphia, this castle-like museum is currently exhibiting World Nativities (on view through January 11), a display that “reveals how artisans have adapted the Nativity scene to represent their own national, regional, and local cultures. Nativities are often crafted from whatever materials are locally available, such as clay, grass, cornhusks, bark, gourds, and even coconuts.”  Five continents are represented in the dozens of displays, ranging from a meticulously rendered traditional Flemish scene, to an English Minimalist Nativity formed out of colored blocks.

Minimalist Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

Minimalist Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

While there, check out the complementary exhibition, A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s, to learn about the development of depictions of Santa in America.  And be sure to take a “Christmas in the Castle” tour, where visitors learn how the family that built the 20th-century castle celebrated the holidays in their medieval-minded space.

Happy Holidays from the MOBIA family to yours!

- T.C. for MOBIA

Xu Bing’s Phoenix at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine

If you’ve ever walked up Broadway at 112th Street, you may have noticed the apartment buildings, restaurants, and, if you’re looking east towards Amsterdam Avenue, one of the largest Anglican cathedrals in the world.  Nearly 125 years old, this famously unfinished church is home to over six buildings, three gardens, and a larger-than-life Peace Fountain that features a battle between Satan and the Archangel Michael.  The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is much more than a church – it is a New York City landmark and cultural center.

As the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the Cathedral is remarkable not only for its sheer size but also for its unique mission. Known for a strong tradition of engagement with art that includes exhibitions, artists’ residencies, and performance series, the Cathedral believes that “art, activism and spiritual life not only nourish one another, but require each other for full expression.” (Cathedral pamphlet) The Cathedral understands itself as a “house of prayer for all people, and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership,” and this mission to unite what seems disparate is reflected in everything from the interfaith, international community that it fosters (including many of the immigrants who have come to New York City since its founding in 1892), to the very architecture of the building itself, which includes styles from High Gothic to Romanesque to Byzantine, to the constant intertwining of liturgy, art, and social justice. It is fitting, then, that Xu Bing’s Phoenix would be found here, as the two six-ton, 100-foot sculptures unite distinct symbols, materials, and traditions to create a stunning and otherworldly experience.

Xu Bing was born in China in 1955, and has lived in the United States as well as Beijing. Known for his installation and site-specific work, he was commissioned in 2008 to create a sculpture for the atrium of a commercial finance center that was in development in Beijing. During a visit to the construction site, he was taken aback by the working conditions, which inspired him to collect construction debris from the site to construct two large phoenixes, a 100 foot male named Feng, and a 90 foot female, Huang, in accordance with Chinese traditions. The sculptures took two years and were ultimately displayed in the Today Art Museum in Beijing instead of the building’s atrium, later being shown in Shanghai at the World Expo and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Today, the phoenixes can be found in what is perhaps their most unusual home yet, in the 230-foot-long and 124-foot-high nave of the Cathedral.

The phoenixes seem to swim through the space, their sinuous shapes creating the illusion of fluid movement. The Cathedral’s literature attests that the piece “soars as if in its own private chamber, and the Cathedral becomes, for a split second, an emperor’s aviary.” That the pieces, constructed from construction materials, appear so regal is a testament to their inspired design. The intricate working of metals and fabrics, as well as the strings of lights intertwined throughout, create mosaics of lights and colors that reflect the architecture of the Cathedral, with its Gothic spires, detailed moldings and perhaps most resonant of all, its richly colored stained glass. Even the repurposing of waste materials into art reflects other pieces around the cathedral, like the cross of the FDNY memorial dedicated to firefighters killed in 1966, and later, in the attacks on September 11th which is made of remains from various sites of fires.

Though the construction materials are reminders of urban development, industrial waste, and environmental degradation, they have been transformed into something ethereal and transcendent. The phoenixes appear as timeless companions, at home in their environment and yet simultaneously like beings from another world. The phoenix is a symbol across cultures of the cycle of death and rebirth. In Jewish Midrash, interpretations of the Torah, the phoenix, named as Milcham, is the only animal not to eat the forbidden fruit and is thus rewarded with 1000 years of peace. As in many of the legends of this mythical creature, at the end of its allotted years the phoenix is said to be consumed by fire and reborn once more from the ashes. In Christian traditions, the phoenix is seen as a symbol of resurrection and of Christ. Throughout many Chinese traditions, it is regarded as a celestial being related to the myth of creation. It is said to have thrown itself on a great fire to extinguish it and been rewarded with immortality, and is therefore a symbol of great sacrifice as well as reincarnation and rebirth. Its closely related symbol, the element of fire, is also associated with these ideas, as a powerful and ever-living force that is life-giving as well as dangerous. Creation and destruction, death and rebirth, exploitation and sacrifice are all themes present in Xu Bing’s work. The transformation of recycled materials into beautiful works of art also speaks of environmental justice and spiritual renewal, making Phoenix perfectly at home in a Cathedral devoted to activism, art, and spiritual life.

xu bing side detail

Phoenix will be on view until January 2015, during the Cathedral’s regular hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily. The Cathedral offers programs for adults as well as children, such as tours with views from above and discussions on themes of environmental and economic justice, and a Creative Building Workshop which invites children to build their own phoenix from recycled materials. For more information, visit the Cathedral’s website.

- E. G. for MOBIA

xu bing wing detail