St. Cosmas and St. Damian

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Donatello, circle of
St. Cosmas , St. Damian
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 (and possibly another artist in this case) to fill them with partially coloured stucco relief sculptures. This relief and one other of two saints, and the four roundels with the evangelists (St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Luke, and St. John) in the lunettes were executed predominantly in white stucco, set against a blue ground. 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. Fifteenth-century sculptures in stucco are almost always made with molds, but technical examination has demonstrated that here instead these reliefs were worked directly in situ, building up the softer medium on top of nails driven into the wall, modelling it while wet, and then incising details and adding the blue to the backgrounds of the dry sculptures. The white parts have a thin layer of white oil paint, with selective gilding. This must have been added soon after the work was completed, as there is no atmospheric accumulation between the stucco and the white oil paint, but the paint obscures some of the details and so may not have been Donatello's original intention. 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 stucco reliefs in the chapel were made from 1428 (when Brunelleschi completed the architecture of the chapel ) until 1443. Specifically, this relief was likely made in around 1435-40. The corresponding relief of Saints Lawrence and Stephen was executed in a different technique, closer to the other stucco reliefs in the chapel, and is thus generally attributed to Donatello. This relief is made of the same materials as the others and executed in situ, but instead of the stucco being modelled in an additive manner (by adding pieces and forming with the hands), the stucco has been worked in a subractive manner (by carving away pieces). This different procedure and perceived differences in style have led scholars to posit a different artist: Michelozzo, Luca della Robbia, or another artist in Donatello's circle. (The frieze with cherub heads is of painted terracotta and also seems to be by a different artist.) Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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