The Church of San Francesco, Assisi
It is a two level church, with a large upper church for pilgrims, and a lower church for the resident friars.
The Upper Church at San Francesco with frescoes by Giotto and his circle, Cimabue, Simone Martini, and many others
The Lower Church, San Francesco
It is one of the earliest Gothic churches in Italy, a style chosen deliberately for its origins in France. The young Saint Francis was known to be a lover of all things French, especially the romantic tales of knights. The style was chosen in his honor. And yet, this is a very Italian variation on the French style. The Italians never shared the French taste for soaring height and complexity. The Italians preferred clarity and proportion. Also, the French hated walls in their Gothic churches. They wanted to transform walls into windows whenever possible. The Italians, on the contrary, loved walls. They loved walls because they could be painted. Most of the greatest Italian artists of the 13th and 14th centuries worked in the church of San Francesco at Assisi in both the Upper and Lower churches.
Altar over Francis' tomb, Lower Church, San Francesco, paintings on the vaults by Giotto's workshop, in the background, the frescoes are by Pietro Lorenzetti
It is a commonplace to point out the irony that the saint known in Italy as Il Poveretto, who wanted to be buried a pauper, now lies at the heart of one of the greatest churches in Europe decorated by some of Italy’s greatest artists. Francis would certainly be appalled and protest if he could. And yet, somehow, it is fitting that these artists decorate his resting place. It was Francis and his followers who created the demand for their work, and who initiated the process by which craftsmen who made images became transformed into artists who created visions.
One of the friars’ most effective preaching techniques was visualization. Preachers would describe a scene and persuade their listeners to imagine themselves in it. Preachers would have their listeners feel the chill air of late night in Bethlehem, smell the animal smells and straw of the stable, and finally hear the newborn Baby’s cries. They would go all out during Lent and Passiontide getting their listeners to feel the maternal anxiety and grief of Christ’s Mother, and to see and to feel the events of Christ’s suffering and death in excruciatingly vivid detail. This is still a very powerful and popular preaching technique, and it created the demand for religious imagery.
The two most important parts of any church are the altar where Christ is made present in the Mass, and the pulpit where the Gospel is preached. Medieval Italian pulpits could be very richly decorated as befitting their sacramental importance and dignity.
Pulpit in San Miniato, Florence, 12th century
Pulpit in the Cathedral of Ravello, 1272
Pulpits were carved from marble and decorated with inlays of colored stone and glass mosaic. It would be on the place where preaching takes place that the first experimental imagery would appear.
The first great narrative art that looks forward to the Renaissance is not painting but sculpture, and sculpture that adorns pulpits. This is the beginning of the process in which sculpted imagery becomes independent of its architectural framework. Imagery that tells stories in an effective way first appears on the very places where religious stories were told, on pulpits.
Guido da Como, also known as Guido Bigarelli, made one of the earliest surviving storiated pulpits in Italy in about 1250.
Pulpit in Pistoia by Guido da Como, 1250
Pulpit by Guido da Como, detail, Adoration of the Magi
The Magi adore the Christ child before an arcaded backdrop on the casket of the pulpit. We are still very much in the realm of the Romanesque where very inventive carving remains subordinate to an over-all architectural design. The figures are less acting out a story than reminding the members of the congregation of stories that were already familiar to them.
Ten years later in 1260, the first pulpit made to preach and tell stories on its own appears in the Baptistery in the cathedral complex of Pisa.
Baptistery with the Cathedral and Camposanto behind, Pisa
Pisa Baptistery, interior
Pisa Baptistery, marble and porphyry baptismal font by Guido da Como
Pisa Baptistery, pulpit by Nicola Pisano
It was designed and carved by Nicola Pisano, the first of a dynasty of great sculptors. It is one of the first works of art made since ancient times where the carved imagery takes precedence over the architecture. The pulpit is a hodge-podge of influences including Byzantine, ancient Classical art, and that new foreign import, French Gothic. All of those influences are subsumed into a powerful and original story-telling imagination. Nicola adds Roman arches subdivided by Gothic trefoils, to the usual entablature between columns and pulpit casket, giving the pulpit a vertical unity of form. It is a single entity with transitions between the parts instead of a box on columns.
Number symbolism plays a big role in the Pisa Baptistery, designed after descriptions of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The interior is built around the number 12 as a dodecahedron, 8 columns are divided by 4 pillars. Twelve, of course, is the number of the Disciples and the Tribes of Israel. The magnificent Baptismal font was made by Guido da Como, and like most, is octagonal; 8 is the traditional number associated with regeneration. The pulpit is a hexagon, based on the number 6, the number of days that God worked to make the Creation, and a number once associated with Adam.
Nicola Pisano, Baptistery Pulpit, detail
Carved scenes from the life of Christ, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment, dominate the pulpit from all sides, and we could imagine them upstaging many a dull and unimaginative preacher.
On the corners of the pulpit are figures that personify Christian virtues, including a real surprise for the 13th century, a nude little Hercules who is supposed to stand for Fortitude.
Nicola Pisano, Hercules as the Christian virtue of Fortitude, detail from the Baptistery Pulpit
He is clearly the result of encounters with ancient Classical art, though Nicola does not quite understand how it is supposed to all work. The workings of contrapposto, the shifting of weight onto one leg eludes him, as does satisfying proportions. By Classical standards, the head is too big and the limbs are almost dwarfish. However, his presence on the pulpit is very daring by the standards of the day and looks forward to many other artists adapting Classical subjects and form to new religious uses.
The Nativity panel is several stories all in the same panel.
Nicola Pisano, The Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit
In the upper left, Gabriel announces the coming Incarnation to a very Roman imperial Virgin Mary wearing a crown and veil. Immediately to her right, she appears again in the Nativity reclining upon the ground in Byzantine fashion, but in a pose that recalls Roman, and even Etruscan funerary art. She has the grandeur and composure of a Roman empress and dominates the center of the composition. In fact, there is now, and was then, a large collection of Roman sarcophagi in the nearby medieval cemetery, the Camposanto of Pisa.
Roman sarcophagi in the Camposanto in Pisa
The whole scene for all of its activity retains a kind of monumental calm.
The Child lies bundled up above her, approached by a now headless shepherd, having heard about the miraculous birth from angels in the trees. Below is a scene with an unknown literary source, the scene of the washing of the newborn Child, now headless. To the left is the figure of Joseph, who true to the holy folk tales about the Nativity, assumes that Mary was unfaithful and refuses to help out with the birth in any way.
The scene of the Adoration of the Magi is based more directly on a Roman sarcophagus that can still be seen in the Campo Santo in Pisa.
Nicola Pisano, Adoration of the Magi, from the Baptistery Pulpit
The composition looks much more Roman and less busy. A majestic Imperial Roman Virgin holds a Christ child that looks uncomfortably like a little infant Nero greedily grabbing the gifts. An angel and Joseph flank her like court officials as the oldest of the three Kings kneels and presents his gift. The second oldest kneels behind him, and the youngest stands behind both of them. Magnificent horses appear on the left.
In both of these scenes, there is a real effort to tell the story dramatically instead of creating a kind of decorative image that reminds people of a story that is already familiar to them. What Nicola Pisano and a lot of later artists admired about ancient Classical art were its grandeur and its naturalism.
Roman sarcophagus from the Camposanto in Pisa
Nicola uses the grandeur to give the stories a sense of momentous importance. This is not any ordinary childbirth. He uses the naturalism to engage and hold our attention by appealing to our imaginations, to a shared sense of experience, as indeed the preachers did from this very pulpit. We are never in any doubt that we are looking at solid figures with mass and weight occupying space, like ourselves. Drapery always describes a body underneath and never becomes decorative form as it does so frequently in earlier Medieval art. People engage with each other in ways that we can comprehend, and even identify with.
Nicola’s most famous student was Florence’s first great sculptor and architect, Arnolfo di Cambio. Arnolfo will inherit Nicola’s sense of the grandeur of Roman form, but more concentrated. He will also inherit Nicola’s architectural idea of transitions between parts of a single entity, instead of parts stacked on top of each other. He will take that architectural idea of transition and unity and apply it on an enormous scale as we’ve seen with the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, and as we will see again with his work on Florence cathedral. Perhaps Arnolfo’s idea of architecture having a kind of sculptural unity of form can best be appreciated in the smaller works he did in Rome. Since ancient times, altars in Roman churches were housed under a stone structure called a ciborium.
Ciborium over the altar of San Clemente, Rome, 12th century
Most ancient ciboria were simple roofs on 4 columns. The only transition from columns to roof was usually an entablature. Arnolfo di Cambio brings the Gothic subdivided arch to Rome and combines it with native Roman building forms. That elegance of transition that we admire in Nicola Pisano’s pulpit appears with even more variety and sophistication in the ciboria that Arnolfo designed for Roman churches.
Arnolfo di Cambio, Ciborium over the altar of San Paolo fuori della Mura, Rome, completed 1285
Arnolfo di Cambio, Ciborium over the altar of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, completed 1293
Something of the grandeur and clarity of form that we admire in Arnolfo’s architecture comes through in his surviving sculpture. He carved a magnificent Madonna and Child to go right over the entrance to Florence Cathedral.
Arnolfo di Cambio, Virgin and Child, ca 1310
It is a type of sculpture seen all over medieval Europe, especially in France, the enthroned and crowned Virgin Mary. Arnolfo gives it the monumental Roman grandeur that he learned from Nicola Pisano with a clarity of form that is entirely his own. The figures of the Mother and Child are large simple round forms. The chevron shaped drapery folds describe the bodies and volumes underneath. This Queen of Heaven is not disembodied, but sits solidly upon her throne, at one time majestically welcoming worshippers into her great cathedral in Florence.
One of Arnolfo’s most influential works survives only in a fragmentary reconstruction in the church of San Domenico in Orvieto. It is the tomb of the French Cardinal de Braye, a former Archdeacon of Reims.
Arnolfo di Cambio, Tomb of Cardinal de Braye, San Domenico, Orvieto, ca 1282
Arnolfo di Cambio, Tomb of Cardinal de Braye, detail
Arnolfo turns the Cardinal’s tomb monument into a drama of his passing. Two deacons at first appear to be drawing the curtain back to reveal the recumbent figure of the dying Cardinal. In fact, if we look closely at the drapery on the deacon on the right, he appears to be moving to the left. The deacons are closing the drapes, ending the Cardinal’s earthly life. His new life in heaven begins under the protection of Saint Mark, his personal patron, on the top left. He is about to be introduced into the company of a very Roman looking Virgin Mary with her Son.
The mosaic inlay over the recumbent Cardinal reminds us that all of these sculptures were once much more colorful than what we see today. Nicola Pisano’s figures on his pulpits probably were seen against a bright blue background with gilded trimming on their clothes.
Perhaps Arnolfo’s most dramatic work survives only in a handful of fragments in a museum in Perugia. He was commissioned to design and build a fountain for that city. What survives is not quite what we would expect for public monument. Instead of allegories of Christian Charity, or Classical river gods, Arnolfo gives us figures of poverty, of desperately thirsty women at the rim of the well.
Arnolfo di Cambio, Thirsty Old Woman, from a fountain made for Perugia, ca 1281
Arnolfo di Cambio, Thirsty Woman, ca 1281
As dramatic as they are, they are carved with a directness and simplicity that are almost modern.
Nicola Pisano’s son Giovanni signs his greatest work, the pulpit he carved for the church of Sant’ Andrea in Pistoia with this inscription:
“Giovanni carved it, who performed no empty work. The son of Nicola, and blessed with higher skill, Pisa gave him birth, endowed with mastery greater than any seen before.”
So much for the humble pious medieval craftsman and the grateful son. This boast was carved on the base of the casket of the pulpit with letters originally gilded so no one could miss it. This pulpit is probably not the work of an arrogant young genius, but the work of a man late in life toward the end of his career. The carved boast is a very rare first hand utterance that survives from one of the artists of the late Middle Ages.
Giovanni Pisano, Pulpit in Sant' Andrea, Pistoia, 1301
This pulpit is clearly modeled on his father’s work in the Baptistery in Pisa, but goes far beyond. We can see that when we compare the carved scenes of the Nativity in both.
Giovanni Pisano, Nativity from the Pistoia Pulpit, 1301
At first glance, Giovanni’s composition looks identical to Nicola’s. All the same elements of the story are all there, and even in the same places. And yet, how completely different in form and spirit is Giovanni’s work from his father’s.
In the Annunciation scene in the upper left corner of both, Mary is so different. In Nicola’s pulpit, she remains queenly even when startled. Giovanni makes her look frightened and confused. The angel appears intent on making himself understood, his long forward neck an element of expressionism, a break with perfect naturalism for the sake of drama. Mary reclines in the center, not in Roman imperial majesty, but in exhaustion from the labor of childbirth. The Child is not nearly so neatly swaddled. His bedding looks very precariously improvised. The angels appear to tumble down out of the heavens to give the news to the startled shepherds. In Nicola’s pulpit, the newborn Christ about to be bathed is a little Hercules waiting calmly. Giovanni’s infant is a squirming sprog terrified at the prospect of getting wet. The nurse who holds him tests the bath water with her finger in a real stroke of imagination. Joseph sits in the lower left corner glaring with anger at being divinely cuckolded. Far from Nicola’s Roman sense of repose, this panel seethes with action and emotion.
The rest of the pulpit is also restless. The arches are now clear and pointed Gothic lancets. A figure of a sibyl on a corner of the pulpit twists and turns to get a better view of prophetic inspiration.
Giovanni Pisano, Sibyl, from the Pistoia Pulpit
The scene of the Massacre of Innocents boils with tragic drama as soldiers tear children from the arms of their screaming mothers. Herod sits in the upper right corner with terrible clarity as the instigator of so horrific a crime.
Giovanni Pisano, Massacre of the Innocents, from the Pistoia Pulpit
Giovanni Pisano had a long and very productive career as a sculptor and an architect. He is responsible for designing the façade of Siena’s cathedral and for carving much of its sculpture.
We know very little about the lives and careers of these artists. We must reconstruct what we can out of fragmentary survivals of contracts and records. In most cases, we are not sure when they were born or when they died. The works and the records run out, and so we must assume that the artist was deceased by a certain point in time. This dearth of biographical material says a lot about the nature of the artist’s profession at this time. There was no Vasari or Condivi to write artist’s biographies. It would never have occurred to anyone to do so. Artists were craftsmen who led very itinerant lives going wherever there was work. We see the work of these artists scattered all over central Italy. They were paid to give form to the ideas of others, usually learned clerics who were not original thinkers, but well-read keepers of liturgical traditions. A priest or priests laid out a narrative and symbolic scheme and the artists gave it form.
Original and autograph work did not have the same value then that it has today. A case in point is the great sculpted pulpit made for the Cathedral in Siena. It was commissioned from Nicola Pisano, but many different hands worked on it.
Nicola Pisano and others, Pulpit in Siena Cathedral, 1265 - 1268
Nicola Pisano and others, Siena Cathedral Pulpit, detail
Nicola Pisano and others, Nativity from the Siena Cathedral Pulpit
Arnolfo di Cambio and Giovanni Pisano certainly had a hand in it as did perhaps a dozen other craftsmen. Art historians today busily and fruitlessly try to figure out which hand carved what part. Who exactly did what hardly mattered to the Canons of the Cathedral. What mattered was a magnificent finished marble pulpit no matter who carved it. There is a lot of compositional repetition in these works. It could be artists sticking to a winning formula. More likely, it was patrons who wanted the artists to stick to a winning formula. “We loved your late father’s Nativity in Pisa,” the priests at Sant’ Andrea in Pistoia probably told Giovanni Pisano, “we want something like that from you.”
Aesthetic values and originality probably counted for more then than most anthropology bound art historians today might want. Nicola Pisano’s pulpit in the Pisa Baptistery was a first of a kind, and was certainly recognized as such at the time. It was also recognized as a success, and apparently a great success. A lot of people wanted something like it, maybe bigger and more opulent in the case of Siena cathedral, but something like it. Something very new that is a great success causes people to remember the artist. It inspires other artists maybe years down the road to take a chance, and then another.