The patron saints
In 1339, the Silk Merchants Guild, asked the Republic of Florence the permission to decorate the church of Orsanmichele with tabernacles containing the statues of the patron saints of each guild. The guilds dominated the Republic, so to say that they “asked the permission” is not exactly correct. Indeed when many years later (1404) the proposal was accepted, several statues were already done. Actually, this delay was a good thing for art history, because it allowed the Renaissance to start just before the project was approved. The church of Orsanmichele was decorated with a cycle of statues that represent the Renaissance moving its first steps, and one in particular, Donatello St George (1416-17), can be probably considered the first ever 100% Renaissance sculpture. To admire the original Donatello St George you must go to the Bargello Museum, where the statue and all the tabernacle have been moved. In the original location, Northern wall of Orsanmichele church, stands a copy.
Donatello St George – The statue
St George was the patron saint of the sword and armor maker’s Guild. Having been a Roman soldier before converting to Christianism, he well represented the guild. Donatello St. George represents the soldier more than the christian: it’s humanism influencing the sculptor, the human nature (Renaissance) taking over the spirituality (Gothic). St George is not idealized, his gaze is not hieratic, like a man who received a blessing, but determined. He looks like an active man, a fighter, one that is ready to move a step forward to meet his enemies. Although he is not fighting at the moment, he’s not relaxed but ready for a fight, if needed. All this psychological inspection, typical of Donatello, is one of the main features of the Renaissance, something very new in 1417.
Perspective in sculpture
The part of Donatello St George which is actually considered more important for art history is the predella (the lower part), which is often used to represent a story linked to the original subject. Here, Donatello represents St George fighting the dragon to save the Princess, and it’s the first example of perspective in sculpture. The bas-relief by Donatello is lower than normal and it was called stiacciato (literally: pressed). It was an “eureka moment” for Donatello, that allowed him to represent linear perspective just like in a painting. Thanks to the stiacciato, sculptors can now represent vanishing lines using buildings or the landscape: these lines, converging to a central focal point, give the observer the illusion of depth, making sculpture much more realistic.
Many more renaissance sculptors used the stiacciato technique to represent perspective. most notably Lorenzo Ghiberti in his “Gates of Paradise” (a project where Donatello collaborated) and even Michelangelo, in one of his early works: the Madonna Della Scala.