Renaissance Sculpture – Philosophy Of Its Decline

WE have still a thought to offer regarding the sculpture of the early Renaissance, one which suggests itself through the illustrations of Donatello’s “St. George” and of the “Davids” by Donatello and Verocchio (Figs. 141, 142), all of which are works held in high estimation by students of this period. This thought concerns the distinction between the statues of this period as works of art considered for themselves, as illustrations of its science of design and great advance over ages preceding, and the same statues considered in their historic relation to the whole art of the period and in their relation to the later position of sculpture among the arts of the Renaissance.

It is apparent that the subjects of Christian art do not offer a large field for statues. As concerns close relation to Christian art it will be readily felt that the reliefs of the fifteenth century are most interesting and most distinctly related to their ostensible subject matter. In Donatello’ s “David” or “St. George” we have a class of subjects which soon exhausts itself and one where the appearance of the statue is but dimly related to our sympathies with the ostensible subject.

The number of such works is not large in the whole amount of the art of the Renaissance. Isolated statues of the Apostles or the Savior are not so interesting as a painting of the ” Last Supper ” or the cartoons of Raphael from the lives of the Apostles. The pictorial reliefs of Ghiberti from the story of Joseph are more interesting in their relation to subject matter than statues of David. Christian art has always found its most sympathetic field in painting or pictorial sculpture, that is in relief.

Sculpture offers the readiest illustration of Renaissance science. It preceded painting in the matter of high perfection. (On the other hand let us not forget that many of the great sculptors of the fifteenth century were also painters. This holds of Verocchio and Pollajuolo (Fig. 69), for instance.) The sculptors’ studies were the basis of all the progress that painting made at this time and of the perfection which it reached a generation later, because they conditioned the scientific study of form ; but in the later Renaissance we detect a greater and greater ascendancy of the art of painting and the subjection of statuary to pictorial influence.

Statuary more and more became the work of isolated patronage and was ultimately rather the reflex of pictorial tendencies than an art for its own sake. This at least was its fate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it sank to a condition of mediocrity and weakness far below the level of the contemporary pictures.

I should be inclined, therefore, to say that the paintings of the fifteenth century offer most matter for the historian; the statues rather appeal to the special tastes of the art critic and the student of design. They are certainly far less numerous, and it would be hard to find many parallels for the distinction of those which are illustrated, whereas in pictures or in reliefs what one can offer in illustration is an infinitesimal suggestion of the actual production.

All this may serve as introduction to the topic of Michael Angelo’s sculpture and the sudden decline not only in quality but also in productivity which followed his prodigious creations. The tomb monuments of the churches supplied the main field of later activity for this art. In the seventeenth century there was a revival in the amount of production related to the general extravagance and luxury of Catholic church decoration at this time, but the heart and soul had then gone from the art. It was mostly empty display and theatrical posturing.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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