Art, the Bible, and the Big Apple to Shut Down upon Museum’s Closure


The Museum of Biblical Art closed to the public on Sunday, June 14, 2015, following the end of the run of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, and will cease operations on June 30, 2015.  MOBIA will not reopen in a new location.

MOBIA had its origins as an art gallery founded in 1997 by the American Bible Society (ABS); the gallery opened in 1998 in the ABS building at 1865 Broadway, New York. In 2004, MOBIA became an independent art museum. MOBIA opened to the public in 2005, remaining on the second floor of ABS’s New York headquarters and continuing to receive significant in-kind and financial support from ABS. ABS sold its New York building in February of this year and will relocate to Philadelphia. With the building sale, MOBIA was required to find a new home. The Museum explored multiple options for a new site and potential partners with whom to collaborate. It was ultimately impossible in such a short timeframe to raise the funds needed for the increased operating budget necessitated by leasing and renovating a new site.

“I believe that MOBIA contributes a unique element to the cultural landscape of New York and the entire country, and it is with tremendous sorrow that we close our doors,” said Co-Chair of the MOBIA Board of Trustees John Fossum. “I want to extend the appreciation of the entire Board to the dedicated, creative, and tireless staff of the Museum, and especially to Director Richard Townsend. I also want to express our gratitude, as well as my personal appreciation, to American Bible Society. It was American Bible Society’s vision of creating a museum focused on the rich heritage of the Bible that gave birth to MOBIA. ABS has been MOBIA’s most generous supporter from the beginning.”

“Under Richard’s leadership, MOBIA has presented extraordinary exhibitions and programs and has elevated its standing to become a true peer of the great art museums of this city,” said Co-Chair of the MOBIA Board of Trustees Elaine Hirschl Ellis. “With Richard as director, I have no doubt that MOBIA would have continued to flourish had there been more time to raise funds to sustain the institution. It is painfully ironic that we must cease existence at the moment the Museum has achieved such prominence.”

“I am deeply proud of what we have accomplished at MOBIA, and deeply sorry that we will not be able to present the many exciting exhibitions and projects we had planned for the coming years,” said MOBIA Director Richard P. Townsend. “Parting with our incomparable staff is extremely difficult and I want to express my profound gratitude to them and our Board for their commitment to the Museum and their exceptional achievements and service. I also want to thank our partners, advocates, members, and all our many visitors for their support and their enthusiastic embrace of our programs. They have made my tenure as director of the Museum both an honor and a pleasure.”

MOBIA, in association with Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia, has co-organized the exhibitionPower and Piety: Spanish Colonial Art from the Patricia Cisneros Collection, and had intended to launch the exhibition’s national tour in New York City later this year. Due to MOBIA’s pending closure, the exhibition—drawn from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros—will premiere at the Society of Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida, in March of 2016 and then tour nationally through 2018. For more information on Power and Piety, please go .


The Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), an independent non-profit arts institution, has as its mission examining the Bible’s influence on the Western visual tradition, and on artists from the historical past to the present day. The Museum has taken a secular perspective on the Bible’s pivotal role in art history, looking at how this text impacts artistic practice in both familiar and surprising ways. MOBIA has been committed to being inclusive and non-sectarian, inviting visitors of all beliefs and viewpoints to participate in its programs and engage with ideas at the intersection of a range of disciplines—from aesthetics to cultural history to religious studies.

The Museum’s exhibitions have included: Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, which brought major works by Donatello and other early Renaissance masters to the United States for the first time; Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Explore the Garden, an exhibition of painting, sculpture, installations, and multi-media pieces created in the last fifteen years, for which MOBIA commissioned six new works; The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi which re-united the three known surviving panels of di Fredi’s masterpiece; and Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion, which featured an array of church decorations and memorials that Tiffany produced beginning in the early 1880s.

The artists featured in MOBIA’s exhibitions include Donatello, William Kentridge, Jacopo Tintoretto, Pipilotti Rist, Marc Chagall, Paolo Veronese, Mark Dion, Albrecht Dürer, Fred Tomaselli, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Enrique Martinez Celaya. MOBIA is a non-collecting institution so there is no collection to be dispersed with the closing of the Museum.

This blog, run by the staff of MOBIA, will be shut down on June 30, 2015.  We wish to thank all of our readers for their interest and support.

Abraham and Isaac

Photo by Lucas Chilczuk

Photo by Lucas Chilczuk

Donatello sculpted a host of early biblical figures – David, Judith and Holofernes, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah among others. Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac) (1421) came first, except for the marble David that Donatello created three decades before the famous bronze version. Abraham and Isaac, which he created with Nanni di Bartolo, known as Rosso, was an early test of his skill depicting narratives from the Hebrew Bible.

Maybe appropriately, the sacrifice of Isaac is also a test.

In Genesis 22: 1-13, G-d announces that He will test Abraham and orders him to bring his “son, [his] only son” to a mountain in the land of Moriah for a sacrifice. Abraham does as commanded, deceiving Isaac about the purpose of their journey. In the nick of time, an angel called to Abraham and said that he had proved his devotion; he could sacrifice a ram caught in a nearby thicket in lieu of his son.

Donatello’s Abraham looks gangly. His thick arms and broad hands hang down, suddenly relaxed, letting the knife fall away from Isaac’s exposed carotid artery. The wide-eyed, skinny boy stares down away from his father, knowing that he would not die that day, after all.

Image Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Image Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac) (1421) keeps the angel, the ram, and the thicket outside of the frame. The rendering is uniquely simple. Some of that simplicity reflects the narrow frame of the cathedral it was made to adorn.   Donatello also made optical corrections for the sculpture’s placement high in a niche on the cathedral façade. Viewed from below, the hands and arms of the sculpture would appear smaller in proportion to the rest of the body.

But the figures remain unusual: too intimate and casual for the grand narrative that they embody. No other artist, before or after Donatello, made an image of the sacrifice of Isaac quite like this one.

Some of the earliest Christian depictions of Abraham and Isaac come from the Roman catacombs. These 60-some crypts, built into soft volcanic rock on the outskirts of Rome between the 2nd and 7th centuries CE, contained the bodies of martyrs, the relics of saints, and a wealth of art depicting Christian liturgy and practice. According to the early 20th-century scholar Alison Moore Smith, catacomb frescoes depicting the sacrifice of Isaac typically show one of three moments from the biblical narrative: father and son approaching the altar, father on a pedestal and son standing at the altar with the ram, and father standing over kneeling son. Some versions – especially ones that show the father standing over kneeling son – add a ram and the icon Christian icon of the “right hand of God.”

catacomb of marcellinus and peter - public domain

One fresco from the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter, depicting the third scenario, shows Isaac nude and Abraham in a short Roman tunic with a boxy altar going up in flames with a prancing lamb present. Abraham grabs Isaac’s shoulder, but there is no malice in his stance. The curved dagger hangs too low and swings too widely to deal a death blow. Perhaps the angel has intervened or, perhaps for this image, Abraham’s heart was not in it.

Over time, more symbols and figures crowded scenes of the sacrifice of Isaac. On sarcophagi from the Mediterranean rim in the early Common Era, Abraham and Isaac typically appear with the hand of God, reflecting a transition from Jewish iconoclasm to Christian iconography of the Father and the Son. Farther into the Middle East, early Christian artists showed Isaac on the altar more often than kneeling on the ground and added Sarah (Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother), the character of a servant (who does not appear in Genesis), a donkey or a horse, and extra foliage.

The sacrifice of Isaac caught on during the Byzantine period, once artists and theologians understood it as a parallel to God the Father offering his son Jesus to atone for humanity’s sins. The central figures began to appear with halos, flowing robes, and more elaborate decoration, in contrast to the simplicity of the early Christian imagery.  In the West, this part of Genesis had less of a following among artists and when it appeared, it did so with a strongly didactic cast.

But in the sculpted interior of Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk, England, the story appears twice. The Late-Gothic-style cathedral nave features a series of bosses – architectural protrusions – depicting scenes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  One boss shows Abraham and Isaac with the simplicity, fatherly emotion, and lack of overt symbolism that characterize very early Christian art. The other, more prominent in the structure of the nave, shows a prayerful Isaac, sitting on an altar covered in fringed fabric, and Abraham standing tall and seemingly free of doubts about the act that he is soon to commit.

Helen Sherman identifies the latter boss as the quintessential medieval depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac. The nave dates to the 1640s, well after the Italian Renaissance. England took longer than continental Europe did to emerge from Gothic conventions of art and architecture. But Sherman connects the simply styled boss to quatrefoils that Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi produced for the doors of the Florence Baptistery.  These two master sculptors competed for the commission of the grand doors by producing relief sculptures of the sacrifice of Isaac, which had to include the father/son pair, two servants, the angel, and a sheep. Sherman identifies Ghiberti’s winning submission, with its idealized human forms and asymmetric, uncluttered composition, as the aesthetic that would define the High Renaissance.

Ghiberti and Brunelleschi may have influenced medieval style in depictions of Abraham and Isaac as much as it influenced them. And they probably influenced Donatello, their  contemporary and fellow Florentine. But where does Donatello himself fit on the historical arc of artistic style?

19 years after Ghiberti and Brunelleschi made their Abraham and Isaac sculptures, Donatello began his. Ghiberti had shown Abraham and Isaac just before the divine intervention and Brunelleschi had shown them in the midst of it. Donatello chose to depict a more internal drama: Abraham’s solace and gratitude after G-d tells him that he would not have to sacrifice his son.  In some sense, this Abraham takes after Abraham of the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter: less symbolic than fatherly.

However, Timothy Verdon, co-curator of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, identifies qualities that make this image of Abraham and Isaac absolutely new.  With this sculpture, Donatello invented the figura serpentinata e moltiplicata, the coiled, multiple-figure grouping. Donatello himself would use this structure again in Judith and Holofernes (1460). High Renaissance artists like Michelangelo would later make it more elaborate.

Image Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Image Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Moreover, Donatello’s Isaac was the first male nude of the Renaissance. This, too, foreshadowed the artist’s later work. The bronze David, from the 1440s, was the Renaissance’s first freestanding male nude.

But where David, another figure from the Hebrew Bible, may be erotic in Donatello’s depiction, Isaac is naïve. Genesis does not actually specify Isaac’s age at the time of the near-sacrifice. At one point, the Talmud – a massive code of Jewish law and a sort of commentary on the Hebrew Bible – says that he was 37 years old. Artists in both Christian and Jewish traditions, however, have tended to depict him as a child.

Donatello made Isaac exactly that, a child with a middle-aged father.

History did not take this simplicity with it. In the Baroque period, painters rather than sculptors picked up the topic. Domenichino, Caravaggio, Pedro Orrente, and Rembrandt van Rijn produced Abraham and Isaac scenes with intense emotional content, symbolism, and coloration. Chiaroscuro, rounded lines, cherubic angels, background landscapes, and glowing faces replaced Donatello’s angled planes, simple garments, and familiar interaction.  A rare Baroque sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, by the Spanish artist Alonso Berruguete, shows both men wailing grotesquely. Gold drapery encases their twisted bodies.

Donatello stepped outside the historical framework. Early Christian and Classical all at once, the 1421 Abraham and Isaac is a category unto itself, and it’s on view at MOBIA through June 14.


Beyond Broadway at 61st: Museum at Eldridge Street

The glossy wooden floor of the grand old sanctuary has buckled. One legend has it that the “shuckling” (i.e. rocking) of men praying in the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now the Museum at Eldridge Street, created permanent warps. The boards and the prayers have not changed since the turn of the 20th century, though everything else has. You step into the past even as a living museum ties you to the present.

The grand sanctuary greets the street with Moorish arches and a marble vestibule. But that gateway is pristine and conserved. Museum visitors first enter through a nondescript basement door leading into a petite lobby. If you peer around the corner, you see the Beit Midrash, where a small Orthodox congregation still prays. If you take the tour (on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), you begin in a converted rabbi’s office with a video display and dozens of artifacts and photographs from the community’s history.

I took the tour and recommend it. If you know everything that there is to know about Jewish life or if you have explored the resources at, the museum’s docents will still bring more to the building and the story. If you know nothing at all about Judaism or the synagogue, that’s at least as good. My tour group included a couple from Germany and one from France with limited English and no background knowledge of Judaism. By the end of the tour, our docent had them entranced.

The story itself is certainly compelling. Two million Jews lived in the Lower East Side by the 1880s. They slept in cramped tenements with or without running water and worked in cramped factories. They prayed in shtieblach – small congregations tucked into backrooms and storefronts. Freedom to pray, study, and observe was, after all, the point of the voyage from Russia and Eastern Europe to New York City.

But surely in America, they could do better than backrooms and store fronts. In the 1886, the Jewish community of the Lower East Side commissioned a synagogue – the first major Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) place of worship in the United States – to replace dozens of nearby shtieblach. It purchased lots at 12, 14, and 16 Eldridge Street. Construction took $91,000 and less than a year. The new building boasted Romanesque painted columns, Gothic windows, Victorian chandeliers, a Moorish ceiling, and a vestibule the size of an entire tenement apartment. Rumor has it that the non-Jewish architects ordered the benches – with a vaguely Trinitarian clover decoration – from a church catalogue.

The Synagogue at Eldridge Street easily filled its 770 seats for the next few decades. Then, again, the times changed. Wealthier families moved to the suburbs. A total ban on immigration to the United States in 1924 stemmed the tide of new residents into the country. The Great Depression hurt everyone. The synagogue’s member ranks dropped and so did its coffers. In 1938, when a hurricane blew out the sanctuary’s east window, the congregation could afford only boards to cover it. In 1950, the sanctuary closed altogether and services moved to the Beit Midrash. In the past, the congregation had held only meetings or occasional weekday services in the Beit Midrash, Hebrew for “hall of study.” Going forward, this basement room with a relatively small wooden Ark to hold the Torah scrolls and seats for no more than 50 people would host almost all of the synagogue’s operations.

The space was decrepit by 1970, when New York University scholar Gerald Wolfe persuaded the caretaker to let him peek inside. The wood frame of the building and the plaster, painted to look like marble, had succumbed to the elements. It would require a massive conservation and restoration effort. Eventually, Roberta Brandes Gratz formed the Eldridge Street Project, a predecessor to the museum. In 1996, the site became a National Historic Landmark and, in 2007, the Museum at Eldridge Street opened its doors. The restoration had taken $18.5 million.

But the museum went farther than mere restoration. With the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it ordered something new. Glass blocks had filled the circular portal on the sanctuary’s east wall for decades since the hurricane. In 2009, Lower East Side-based artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans began work on a window to replace the blocks. They designed a stained glass spiral in cyan and gold, with five-pointed stars and one six-pointed Star of David drawing from the synagogue’s primary design. The result is gauzy, with a sort of halo effect. Gans told the Forward newspaper that she had the “imagery of veils” in mind while generating the work.

I finished the tour staring at the east window, from the women’s balcony. Women and men in Orthodox synagogues pray separated by either a balcony or a screen. This balcony in particular offers a good view of any men praying below (perfect for young women scoping out marriage prospects, said the docent) and an even better view of the east window.

Photo by Whitney Cox

Photo by Whitney Cox

We do not know what the young women might have thought of the 1887 original east window, in a traditional rose pattern. No photographs of it survive. But our docent said that visitors react strongly to the new window, one way or another. I could not make up my mind. The whimsical quality of the window reflects a specific, contemporary moment in design history and I wonder whether future generations with think that this fits the eclecticism of the synagogue’s architecture or clashes with its grandeur.

The Museum at Eldridge Street eventually plans to incorporate more contemporary and modern art in the vein of the east window, though on a temporary rather than permanent basis. According to Deputy Director Amy Stein Milford, in an email, these works will “include temporary installations created specifically for our landmark site and that address themes that are resonant at our site like memory, architecture, [and] heritage, as well as the possibility of mini exhibitions of artists’ works on themes of Jewish/Lower East Side significance.”

Art is just one component of the museum’s successful effort to survive and stay fresh. A multimedia center offers interactive displays titled “Beyond the Façade,” “From Ellis to Eldridge,” and “Ways We Worship” interspersed with original street signs, ritual objects, and congregational documents. A gift shop sells a trendy “Schleppen” (schlepping – lugging around) tote bag, tchotckes, and graphic novels themed on a column from the Forward newspaper.

But if you missed the museum’s Passover products and programs, not to worry. In May, two renowned klezmer (Ashkenazi folk) violinists will perform and an after-hours tour will offer cocktails and socializing. More information can be found at

This site is alive and well. Just as the east window crystallizes light in the sanctuary, the Museum at Eldridge Street crystallizes Jewish history in New York. It’s worth the trip downtown. Take the B or D to Grand Street and walk a few blocks through Chinatown.


The Art of Suffering

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. – Luke 23:46

The death of Jesus is treated with sparing detail in the New Testament.  Only 42 verses in the entire Bible explicitly describe his crucifixion, a gruesome but unfortunately common form of execution used by Romans for criminals convicted of treason against the Empire.  While ancient sources like Josephus and Cicero unanimously agreed that it was a horrible death, the Gospel writers did not focus on the gory details that may have included, according to modern archeological evidence, nails being driven through the sides of the heels of the condemned and into the crossbeam.  Instead, the Evangelists emphasize the words Jesus uttered to those in his proximity and his agonized cries to God, as well as the foreboding surrounding elements that signified the tremendous importance of his death.  But if the actual description of Jesus’s suffering leaves a reader wanting, artists over the past two millennia have expounded on the terse words provided in the Bible.

The Crucifixion has been widely depicted since the fourth century C.E.  Unsurprisingly, this key moment in the Christian narrative has also been recreated on film many times since the birth of the medium.  The treatment of Jesus’s violent death on screen has ranged just as widely as pre-cinema visual representations, from the subdued to the highly graphic.

Many films centered on the Passion may be featured on television this weekend, but if you are especially interested in traditional Christian art, you might want to check out the movie adaptation of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).  In a highly emotional scene in which Jesus, knowing that he is going to die in a matter of hours, makes a final plea to God for his life before relenting and agreeing to his crucifixion, he cries out, “Just watch me die!  See how I die!”  The charged exclamation is followed by a rapid succession of details of paintings of his death.  Can you name any of the artwork? (Starts at 3:25).

Bonus: In the preceding scene, when Jesus is gathered with his disciples for the Passover Seder the night before his arrest, they strike a familiar pose. Do you recognize this?

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), dir. Normal Jewison.

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), dir. Norman Jewison.

– TC for MOBIA

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.