Monumental Art: Donatello’s St George

(from a piece published in the Oxford University independent newspaper ‘Cherwell’)

Donatello St George 1417

St George
Marble free-standing statue
1417 ca.
National Museum of Bargello, Florence

You might think it’s simply a knight; agreed, a masterfully sculpted one, but still simply a knife. However, if you pause and let your eyes linger on him, and allow yourself know more about it, it becomes clear that he is not ‘simply a knight’.

St George is considered the first free standing statue of early Renaissance sculpture, where the Renaissance and its attention to realism emerge and overcome the rigid and frontal representation of medieval times. The statue is astonishing for its natural pose, his carefully individualised features, his meditative and determinate expression, and its clothing, rendered in the greatest detail. Indeed, in St George we see not only the intention to represent every possible detail – including cloth, metal, leather, flesh, and hair – as close to reality as possible, but also the fulfilment of that intention: Donatello manages to make us think that we are looking at a variety of different materials, when in fact the only thing that makes the statue is marble. Giorgio Vasari, the famous 16th century writer of the lives of Italian artists, remarks about the statue that ‘life itself seems to be stirring vigorously within the stone’ as ‘it had never been seen in modern statues yet’.

So now the statue should look a bit less ‘dull’ and a bit more ‘exciting’, since we have highlighted aspects that one might oversee when looking at it. We are now going to add elements from its context that can help to appreciate the statue a bit more. If you ever want to see St George, you’ll have to go to the National Museum of Bargello in Florence (which is worth visiting for plenty of other pieces of amazing sculpture anyway). The original collocation of this statue, though, was the Church of Orsanmichele, where all the guilds of the city had their own statue. More specifically, St George was the patron of armourers, hence the prominence of its shield and armour, and the deliberate emphasis on his virtues as a warrior. That butchers, merchants, and shoemakers all had a statue symbolising their (profane) activity in a sacred space; should not surprise, as in the 15th century religion (still) permeated every aspect of life. But here is where we start to understand that art is not simply the representation of something. Why something is represented also matter, for the subject is always intimately linked with its context and time, and the way it is represented, which makes us understand how people from different periods perceived the world, and on what parts of it they focused their attention on .

There is so much more to every work of art, and in order to appreciate something fully, and not to dismiss a sculpture as ‘simply a knight’, we should really be aware of all this.

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