Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist
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When Brunelleschi designed this chapel, a famous monument of Renaissance architecture, he may have intended the circle of grey stone in the lunettes and spandrels, frieze, and niche shaped compartments below to be empty, grey shapes drawn on a white wall, but the Medici commissioned Donatello to fill them with partially coloured stucco relief sculptures. Stucco was an ancient sculptural medium, described at length in Pliny's well-known account and still visible in the Renaissance in the Coliseum and other ruins. Donatello used here both finer-grained stucco and a variant, another ancient material, cocciopesto, which is stucco mixed with brick dust, which produces a reddish-coloured medium. Fifteenth-century sculptures in stucco are almost always made with molds, but technical examination has demonstrated that here instead Donatello worked directly in situ, building up the softer medium on top of nails driven into the wall, modelling it while wet, adding colour to select areas in fresco while damp, and then incising details and adding the blue to the backgrounds of the dry sculptures. The idea of using a limited palette of a few colours is also discussed in ancient texts and would be known from ancient cameos, which were popular for collectors in the period, including the Medici. The roundels in the spandrels, one of which is shown here, are particularly reminiscent of cameos with their low relief and limited range of earth tones. The eight roundels in the lunettes and spandrels and a larger reliefs of pairs of saints below were made by Donatello (probably with assistants) from 1428 (when Brunelleschi completed the architecture of the chapel) until 1443. Specifically, this relief was likely made 1428-9. One of the larger reliefs of a pair of saints may be by a different artist. The frieze with cherub heads is of painted terracotta and seems to be by a different artist. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.