Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Baptistry, Pisa: Pulpit by Nicola Pisano

Giorgio Vasari, the spin-doctor and propagandist for the Medicean concept of the "Florentine Renaissance" credits Nicola Pisano (also called Niccolò Pisano, Nicola de Apulia or Nicola Pisanus) (born c.1220-1225 in Apulia, died c. 1284) with starting the first of three stages of Renaissance sculpture.

The signed pulpit (signed with "Nicola Pisanus") in the Pisa Baptistry is Nicola Pisano's first authenticated work. It was carried out between 1255 and 1260. Made of marble, it stands 4.65 metres in height.

Precedents for the pulpit existed in the south from the previous century. But this pulpit acts more like architectonic sculpture than a mere piece of liturgical furniture.

Its shape is a function of its site. As a hexagon, it is symbolic of the Death of Christ.

The pulpit's shape and the geometrical organization of its reliefs have been allied to the harmonious proportional ratios. In addition, the five reliefs (the sixth side was open for passage to the lectern) are separated by reddish brown Classicizing colonnettes.

The pulpit is supported by a central column on a base with grotesque figures and animals - representing pagan elements subdued by Christianity - and by six external columns.

Three of these have bases set on the backs of lions hovering over vanquished prey, a Romanesque motif symbolic of triumphant Christianity. The columns are crowned by Gothic, quasi-Corinthian foliated capitals whose deep carving and drill work is akin to late Roman techniques.

Carved prophets and the Evangelists in the spandrels and six nearly freestanding figures (five virtues and St John the Baptist, relating to the site) are sited between the reliefs.

Appropriately for the Baptistry, the scenes emphasise Christ's infancy, revelation of divinity and sacrifice. They are: a continuous narrative with the Annunciation, Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds; the Adoration of the Magi depicted as the Three Ages of Man; the Presentation in the Temple; the Crucifixion; and the Last Judgment.

Traces of pigment suggest that paint once increased the polychromy of the coloured marble. Further sections would have been enamelled. The pulpit, like many medieval conceptions, would have been a blaze of colour. Unfortunately, all the additional colouring is no longer extant.

In the reliefs, figures dominate the scenes, but here they are unprecedented in their full height. Deeply undercut, they stand convincingly in front of each other. The weight of their features is heavy and their drapery is massive.

The massive Madonna is derived from the Phaedra on a sarcophagus in the nearby Campo Santo, Pisa. Her weighty form and Graeco-Roman head-dress as well as her heavy lips and chin are repeated throughout the pulpit, for example in the Nativity, and the `Adoration'. More directly inspired from figures on the Phaedra sarcophagus are the wizened heads of the expressionistic prophetess Anna and St Elizabeth in the Presentation in the Temple.

The classical influence is particularly seen in the figure of Hercules.