(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)
The High Altar of St Anthony (front view)1447-50
Basilica di Sant'Antonio, Padua
In the late 1440s, a bequest enabled the friars of the Basilica of St Anthony to project a new high altar: regrettably Donatello's architectural and sculptural masterpiece was dismantled a century later, but the bronze statuary survives and the general scheme seems to be reflected in the composition of Mantegna's San Zeno Altarpiece (San Zeno, Verona).
Beneath an open tabernacle of ornamental, classicizing form, with eight columns and a curved pediment with volutes at either end, were disposed seven life-size bronze statues. A central Virgin and Child (in an unusual pose recalling local, Byzantine art) was flanked in a sacra conversazione by six patron saints, including Sts Anthony and Francis. They were modelled and cast with freedom, and not highly finished, as they would never have been visible close to or in a clear light. At the level of the predella of a normal painted altarpiece were inserted four rectangular, panoramic relief scenes of the Miracles of St Anthony. In front of imaginatively conceived, Roman architectural backgrounds, interior or exterior (their details picked out with gilding), Donatello mustered groups of amazed bystanders round the principal actions of the saint and those immediately involved, in a way reminiscent of a modern stage director. Between these four narratives were interspersed twelve panels with charming Musician Angels, and four with the Symbols of the Evangelists and one of the Dead Christ, while on the back of the structure of the altar was a great relief of the Entombment, carved in stone and inlaid with mosaic and glazed coloured strips. Here Donatello's dramatic powers were unleashed in figures of frenzied holy women bewailing the event.
Full documentation allows this major project to be followed step by step, giving an insight into the wide delegation of tasks to which Donatello had to resort in order to push work forward to completion by 1450.