Correction to This Article
This review incorrectly said that the "Foulc Madonna," a carving by sculptor Desiderio da Settignano, is on loan to the National Gallery of Art from the Louvre. It is on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In His Hands, the Spirit Lives

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

"The Word was made flesh": That famous Gospel passage was intended to describe Christ's divine presence on Earth, but it might as well be the tag line for the entire Christian culture of Renaissance Italy. That was a culture in love with words and abstractions, but one that also cherished images of fleshy reality. It was a culture that treasured abstruse theology but also wanted to see its deity depicted as the boy next door.

Desiderio da Settignano was one of the finest sculptors of 15th-century Florence -- which automatically makes him a major force in the history of Western art -- so it's no wonder that his best works seem devoted to capturing the tension between spirit and substance, between insubstantial thought and tangible certainty. A new exhibition at the National Gallery provides the first-ever survey of his art, and lets us watch that tension play out.

Desiderio was born around 1430 in the Tuscan quarry town of Settignano, into a family of stonecutters. He moved to nearby Florence in his 20s and died there barely a decade later, in 1464. Somewhere around 1455, when he was not long out of training -- we're not sure with whom, but the great sculptor Donatello must have been involved -- Desiderio took a round slice of marble about 18 inches across and carved Jesus and Saint John the Baptist into it, in low relief. The pair are shown as loving childhood friends, a notion that's nowhere in the Bible but became a favorite subject in Renaissance art. The two kids huddle close, flesh to flesh, and the whole picture, in fact, seems to be about touching -- which means that it's also about the Incarnation that John proclaimed and Christ embodied.

The hands at the bottom of the piece are one of its most striking features: As they intertwine, it's hard to say whose is whose. The two boys' fingers are exquisitely rendered and beautifully carved. Each one has a delicate backward bend around the middle joint; though anatomically unlikely, that was a special sign of grace and beauty in Renaissance culture and is one of Desiderio's trademarks. You see Christ's tender, double-jointed fingers sink into the fur on John's lambskin cloak, and John's wrap gently around Christ's outstretched arm. It's as though the two boys are busy verifying -- proving with their own two hands -- the tangible presence of the sacred in the world. And as though Desiderio is keen to demonstrate it, in his depiction of their meeting.

Hands like these are everywhere in Desiderio's reliefs. They're in images of Mary, as her fingers cradle her baby's pudgy thigh and dimple its flesh. (It's marble flesh, let's not forget, made yielding only through Desiderio's skill.) They're present in depictions of the infant Christ, playing with his mother's veil or with his own swaddling bands. In the Renaissance, that fabric was supposed to evoke the shrouds his crucified flesh would later be wrapped in, at the moment when his divine spirit came to play its crucial earthly role. By fingering those shrouds-to-be, the godly Christ is accepting the fate in store for him and his body.

In one famous relief of Mother Mary and her holy child -- it's known as the Panciatichi Madonna, after an early owner -- there's even a kind of doubting-Thomas moment, with one of Mary's slender fingers hovering over a peculiar and convenient gap in the left side of her baby's shirt. That, in 15th-century Florence, would have stood as a prefiguration of the famous moment when Thomas is invited to probe his immortal Savior's wounded side, to prove His resurrected presence in the flesh in front of the Apostles.

In Desiderio, hands are almost never at rest; they rarely even gesture in midair. They're almost always busy at the work of touching, coming into contact with the stuff of the material world, and with the spirit in it.

But Desiderio's sculptures don't just depict touching and feeling. They are about it, in the essence of their making. Their softly rippling surfaces themselves beg to be stroked. They appeal to the fingers as much as to the eyes. (Maybe the worn areas in some of these works show that they were once intended to be touched. I'd hate to be a museum guard tasked with keeping modern fingers off.) The bas-reliefs, especially, are most striking for their shallow, tactile surfaces. In the so-called Foulc Madonna from the Louvre, a mother-and-child relief that is one of the artist's best-known objects, a single rippling surface depicts both Mary's hand, near us in the foreground, and the angels hovering in the far background. You're much more aware of that unifying marble plane than of any empty distance that would extend between those figures in real space.

In Renaissance sculptures in the round, including several busts by Desiderio in the National Gallery show, the space that things take up always comes first: The shape of a statue is likely to get noticed long before its surface is. A three-dimensional figure can weather fairly badly and still be legible. In Renaissance paintings, drawings and prints, you tend to be aware either of the perfectly flat surface or of the imaginary depth that it depicts, but not of both at the same time. (Psychologists insist that's true of most flat pictures.) But in reliefs -- and most especially in Desiderio's reliefs -- there's a blurring of distinctions between 3-D and 2-D, near and far, solid and ethereal, touching and seeing, drawn edges and sculpted forms. There's almost a kind of sublimation going on -- the kind of sudden, magical change of state you saw in high school chemistry as a solid becomes a gas and disappears.

The word can become flesh, and flesh can vanish into spirit, and Desiderio's vaporous reliefs stand as the ideal medium for depicting the mysterious passing of one into the other.

Sometimes, the material details of those reliefs are barely graspable at all, as though the entire scene is on its way to dissolving into air. (It seems that Leonardo da Vinci, wanting to inject some mystery into the hard materiality of earlier Renaissance pictures, translated Desiderio's foggy softness into painting. If he is in fact the source of Leonardo's great sfumato style, Desiderio has to count as the godfather of most later painters.)

Or maybe it's as though the hard stone of Desiderio's reliefs is just about to melt. And that melting stone itself then becomes the perfect medium to render fingers melding into fur, into cloth or into flesh -- classic moments in Desiderio's art, as we've already seen.

In that Foulc Madonna, once again, hard marble depicts soft cloth, which in turn barely conceals the yielding flesh of Mother Mary's nipple. And that flesh itself only points to things still less material: It functions as a metaphor or type, as Renaissance theologians said, for the abstract idea of divine care and charity, and as a theological reminder of the one, immaculate female body that could give birth and sustenance to the Son of God's spirit-filled form.

People speak of a "miracle of art," but with Desiderio's reliefs the phrase is less metaphorical than usual. The particular reality of how their marble is worked gives them the ability to hint at the miraculous. All the fingers and touching and tender surfaces in Desiderio's reliefs help him argue that the barely graspable can become palpable on Earth, and in stone.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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