Monday, August 22, 2016

Nicola Pisano and his Nativity Scene on the Pulpit of the Baptistry in Pisa Italy, Italian Gothic Sculpture

Form:  According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,  "The circular baptistery, begun in 1152 but only completed in the 14th century, is covered by a dome surmounted by a cone, which gives the structure an ogival, Oriental effect. The interior contains a wonderful hexagonal pulpit completed in 1260 by Nicola Pisano."

Nicola Pisano. Nativity,
Pulpit from Pisa's Baptistery c1259
Italian Gothic,
Form:  This pulpit exhibits qualities from all three of the eras.   The ornate carving and stylization of the lions and the lions demonstrates both the influence of the Byzantine and Gothic eras.  The classical columns surmounted by Gothic style tracery show those periods styles.Iconography:  This pulpit is the podium from which the priest or brother who resides over the ceremonies and services speaks from.  As such it is elevated as his words must be but the decorations and ornamentation are also iconic of the priest's words and his status. The references to both the classical and gothic styles also lend the work some authority as well.  The sculptures of the eagle and lions at the base have some basis in earlier traditions in which lions and monsters serve an apotropaic (protective) function but in this case, it is possible that the lions could refer to the story of Daniel in the lion's den or to a passage from the the 95th Psalm (read the entire Psalm in "Liaisons"):
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
Likewise, the representation of the eagle could be a reference to one of the apostles or again to the psalm:
Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Context:  Several generations of the Pisano family had worked in and around the Pisa complex where this was found.  The Catholic Church at this point in time was the major patron of the arts.  It was not unusual for several generations of artists or workers to work on a single church or structure.

Nicola Pisano. Nativity, detail of Baptistery Pulpit panel: Annunciation,
Nativity and Annunciation to Shepherds 1259-60 Italian Gothic,

Pediment of the Parthenon
Three Goddesses c438BCE
Greek Classic,
Form:  This is a relief carving.  The relief varies greatly in the height and or depth of each of the figures and objects.  In general the composition is fairly symmetrical yet it is very crowded and almost seems disorganized.  Most of the figures are placed in the foreground of the picture plane and the space created is not very illusionistic.  Space is created by placing the figures in the foreground lower in the picture plane.  In order to show the recession of space, the figures are layered and the placed in a vertical perspective. The rendering of each of the figures is fairly naturalistic and the clothing, drapery and poses are somewhat reminiscent of carvings such as the this one from the Parthenon's pediment.  Several of the figures, such as the main one which depicts Mary and the child (Jesus) are repeated because several scenes are simultaneously being represented.  This kind of continuous narrative is common in Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art.
Iconography:  This is a nativity scene that at first appears to take place in a manger but it also contains the baptism of Christ as well as the annunciation by the angel Gabriel.  The scenes are as follows, far left the angel Gabriel confronts Mary with his annunciation of the birth of Jesus. Mary pulls away towards the center of the scene.  In the upper right hand corner is a manger scene in which Jesus lies in his crib, at the far right are two of the wise men who are missing their heads.  The center of the scene Mary reclines in a pose very reminiscent of the Goddesses from Parthenon.  In the lower left foreground of the image is the baptism of Christ (note he's missing his head too.)
The next major difference is in the style and amount of artwork. In general, the Romanesque style is extremely organized, diagrammatic, and stylized. It tends to take cues from Byzantine art, in which the figures' relative size to another figure is based upon its' importance in the spiritual hierarchy. For example, when Jesus or an Angel is shown, they are relatively larger than all the other figures whom are depicted in a particular scene. This shows how important they are, they loom above the mere mortals, faithful and sinners alike. In contrast, the Gothic style of sculpture and art within a cathedral is very much a "schema and correction" of the Romanesque art. While the same themes and saints may be depicted, they are far more naturalistic, shown more or less in proportion often with detailed, flowing robes which harken back to the Greek ideals of art and beauty. For example, in Stokstad on pg. 594, is a depiction of Dormition of the Virgin from the Strasbourg cathedral in France. Jesus, the virgin, and all the followers are all equal in size and proportion, the only thing that shows Jesus as the most important figure is his place n the center and his halo, otherwise he blends in with the others. There also tends to be more of an emphasis on the stories of Jesus in the Gothic cathedrals, whereas the Romanesque cathedrals tended to emphasize not only Jesus, but biblical stories, morality stories, saints, parables, and virtues.Context:  The realism of her pose and drapery demonstrate the beginnings of the heightened realism that occurs during this period.  These classical references are both "classy" but also refer to the new ideas concerning a more humanistic approach towards interpreting scripture.  The naturalism relates more towards the viewer than ever before and it is possible to imagine the scene as something real.