Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello by Jules Lubbock

Every so often an art book comes along that changes your entire view of a subject. Tom Rosenthal is enthralled by a major new study of seven Renaissance artists who brought narrative to new intellectual and sensuous heights
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Art books fall into many categories; glossy accounts of movements like Impressionism with lots of colour and minimal text; monographs on individual artists which, if properly illustrated, sell well if the individual is Rembrandt or van Gogh or Picasso; and those tomes on relatively obscure subjects written by academics for other academics. These books can be trying for the reader interested in art but not in the more arcane aspects of dating or attribution, and are often in the form of a doctoral thesis, mildly gussied up for publication by a university press and frequently both unreadable and indigestible.

Jules Lubbock's book, which deals with a relatively narrow subject, a fairly short period - from 1298 to 1465 - and then only with only a handful of works by a mere seven artists, could so easily have fallen into the dull and boring category of professors scoring points off other professors, best saved for the technical journals. It is in fact as scholarly as any don could demand but, in the lucidity of its writing, the skilled use not just of illustrative plates, but of genuinely helpful photography - much of it by the author himself - it is an absorbing interpretation of some severely difficult but luminously rewarding great art. It can be appreciated by both the lay enthusiast and that quasi-mythical beast, the general reader.

In his preface, Lubbock traces his interest in the narrative art of the early Renaissance to a student encounter, 40 years ago with The Beheading of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the predella panel from an altarpiece once in San Marco, Florence and now in the Louvre. It is by Fra Angelico, not one of his seven chosen artists, but: "The sense of the rhythm of the executioner swinging his sword as he moved around the circle of kneeling martyrs, three already beheaded, two awaiting their fate; the simplicity of the background with its five cypress trees and the five towers of the walled city; the pure and brilliant colours and clear morning light all helped to stimulate the vivid impression that the event was actually taking place before my eyes. I felt that I could 'read' the picture as easily as a book."

This prompts Lubbock to the view that while, over the years, art historical theory has gone through many phases, even fashions, "the [current] neglect of narrative is regrettable". One can only applaud his view, which opposes, in his terms, the equivalent of the move in academic literary criticism away from plot and character to deconstruction and the death of the author.

Lubbock's entire book is not a plea for narrative since, in the Renaissance, it was always at the forefront of art, but a highly sophisticated celebration of painting and sculpture as narration, as storytelling. He devotes chapters to three painters and four sculptors. The painters are Duccio with his Maestà, the 11 scenes of Jesus's Trial on the altarpiece for the High Altar of the cathedral in Siena; Giotto's frescoes for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and, perhaps the most familiar to us, Masaccio's frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. It is not in any way to minimise the importance or the excellence of the painting chapters if I do not deal extensively with them here. Lubbock's interpretations and analyses are essential reading for all who admire these painters and these particular works.

If I concentrate on what Lubbock has done for the sculptors - Giovanni Pisano with his Pistoia pulpit and his pulpit in Pisa; Ghiberti and Brunelleschi with their second baptistery doors in Florence; Ghiberti again with the Gates of Paradise in Florence; Donatello's pulpits in San Lorenzo, also in Florence - it is because, for me at least, these are the most revelatory. It is so much easier to "read" a narrative painting than a highly complex relief sculpture, even if one discounts the added problems of both paintings and sculptures being placed in elaborate religious buildings, often at a considerable distance and an awkward angle from one's frequently fallible eyes.

To offer a (doubtless crude) analogy, one can read a complex painting as one reads some complex prose, whether it's by Henry James or James Joyce. To read a monumental relief sculpture is much closer to trying to decode a poem by Yeats or Gerard Manley Hopkins at his most opaque. You really have to work at it and, here, Lubbock is masterly in his exposition and evaluation.

I have a long-lived special interest in Giovanni Pisano, at least partly because, in the late 1960s, I was involved in the publication of the first accessible book about him. It had, for the time, revolutionary photographs by a gifted Italian and the main text and guiding spirit of the book were provided by the English sculptor and writer Michael Ayrton who coaxed out of Henry Moore a fascinating introduction. Moore wrote:

"I wanted to illustrate that Giovanni Pisano approached the structure of sculpture from inside. Many early sculptors approached form from the outside, rounding it off and smoothing it, but Giovanni was one of the first Italians to feel the bone inside the sculpture and when we [ie Moore and Ayrton and the photographer] looked at the lions on the Pisa Cathedral pulpit and at the wolf in Siena, we could see how the elbow joints pushed out, that there was an inside structure, a skeleton to the sculpture coming out."

Lubbock's admiration of Pisano is quite as profound as Moore's and Ayrton's but, in the scope of a much longer text, he goes further in terms of explication which, while frequently technical in nature, is never other than fascinating. He points out that, for those who have not visited Pistoia or Pisa and have relied on photographs, a loss of perception has been suffered because the photography was simple, face-on mechanical stuff taken from scaffolding. Thus the viewer can only see them as if looking at a painting on the wall of a gallery and hung at eye-level. If we see these reliefs in situ we both have to look upwards - they are nine to 12 feet above the ground - and, to read them properly, we must move around them, thus constantly changing our angle of view. In other words we are reading, ie interpreting these intricate, serial narratives by perpetually altering our perspective. Lubbock demonstrates these effects diagrammatically and, of course, far more graphically, by showing his own photographs from many different angles. When you add his verbal commentary you will see, read and understand a narrative, sequential quality in Pisano's interpretation of scripture which is quite unforgettable in its impact.

I suspect it is only a matter of time before some enterprising TV film producer tackles all the sculpture reliefs analysed in this book since, with Lubbock to guide a digital movie camera in colour, a mass audience could grasp the fundamental critical point he makes early on in his study of Pisano that Giovanni "was as great an artist [as Giotto], and although his work was quite different in character, he made an equal contribution to the tradition of pictorial narrative."

He was also a technical innovator in that his father Nicolo, also a celebrated sculptor, did not produce work that looked good in the round. Giovanni did. While his father tackled a block of marble head on, thus producing figures which look terrific from a frontal view but with an inevitably much less satisfactory, rather squashed, side view, his son used blocks at a 45-degree angle so that, for instance, the bridge of a nose could be carved along the foremost edge of the block, giving full side views and a far more proficient three-dimensional effect to his entire reliefs. This is simply another way of demonstrating the power of the internal structure described by Henry Moore.

What makes Lubbock such a good guide is his ability to relate sculpture to its original, biblical sources, and to understand and therefore be able to explain the extraordinary intellectual as well as technical difficulty of what Pisano achieved. In a few pages, he produces a masterly analysis of Chapter II of St Matthew's gospel, dealing with the adoration of the magi and the slaughter of the Innocents which, under Pisano's hammer and chisel in Pistoia, are brought terrifyingly to life.

As Lubbock dryly notes: "The story turns upon deception, secrecy and conspiracy. Herod's plot would have worked had it not been for God, who did know the full story. God is the all-seeing and highly manipulative detective in this case, who thereby rescues the Holy Family and, incidentally, causes the massacre. It is apparent that the plot of this very short story is far from simple and it is difficult to represent pictorially."

A few pages further on he claims, interestingly, that Giotto must have seen Pisano's sculpture, with its extreme violence in the massacre scene, and that his painting of the same theme takes a later point in time when he depicts the bereaved lovers numb with grief at the slaughter. He also claims that "this was a carefully thought out response to certain issues in pictorial narrative, part of a developing debate." If so then, in artistic terms, this debate was surely a clash of Titans.

If Pisano is the peak of artistic achievement in marble relief sculpture, then the high point in bronze relief sculpture is divided between Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Donatello. In a way, bronze relief is a simpler narrative method because it is easier to convey finer pictorial detail than is possible in a marble carving. It is also, because bronze relief is closer to painting than marble, possible to play more elaborate games with perspective and Lubbock gives us a closely argued analysis, impossible to précis here, of who did what and when in terms of the invention of geometric perspective. This was first set out in writing by Alberti in 1435 in De Pictura (On Painting). The real issue, however, is whether Alberti invented it or whether he was merely, as it were, transcribing an earlier invention by Brunelleschi and applied thereafter with his assistance by Donatello and Masaccio. (One can't help marvelling at such a contemporaneous constellation. Somehow, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Gavin Turk don't have quite the same resonance.)

While no one can properly call into question the virtuosity of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, my own taste leads me more towards Donatello, whose two bronze pulpits in San Lorenzo, executed between 1459 and 1465, are, allowing for the difference in medium and technique, almost as exciting sculpturally as the Pisano pulpits. They certainly carry a much more dramatic, narrative punch than even Ghiberti's The Gates of Paradise and, whether Alberti is credited or not, some of the perspectival tricks are astonishing.

I can't resist quoting Lubbock's description of Donatello's Agony in the Garden: "Donatello has omitted the conventional scenes of Jesus admonishing his disciples for sleeping. They just sleep, each in a state of total exhaustion and abandon, perhaps the sleepiest sleepers ever portrayed, so sleepy that they are able to sleep despite their rocky beds and horribly uncomfortably postures. The mouth of one hangs open, the hair of another hangs over his face in greasy locks, another leans against the pilaster clutching it in a childish gesture in his sleep... All of them seem to be slipping off the rock so that the fact that the foreground sleepers overhang the bottom frame of the pulpits suggests that the whole group could start slithering towards us out of the picture."

This, one should note, is not some trompe l'oeil painting but a bronze relief sculpture and is a typical example of the verve with which the author writes. Lubbock is a professor of art history at Essex and, if he lectures as he writes, his pupils are to be envied. All in all, this is an outstanding contribution both to our understanding of the Renaissance and our appreciation of narrative art.