Msgr. Timothy Verdon, a Yale-trained art historian and canon of the Cathedral of Florence, Italy, has dedicated his career to reviving the link between great works of religious art and the liturgical and spiritual setting from which they came.

Now, Msgr. Verdon has chosen to place a groundbreaking exhibition of 23 masterpieces of early Florentine Renaissance sculpture, many of them never loaned overseas before, at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City instead of a major museum. He wanted to bring these statues and reliefs into close proximity to their origins in the Christian faith.

This is what makes the exhibit so moving for Catholic visitors like me: It calls to mind my experience of visiting Florentine churches guided by the volunteers of the “Ars et Fides” group founded by Msgr. Verdon, who could detail the theology of the religious orders who sponsored that particular art in that particular location.

And it brings a taste of that experience to Americans who might not have the chance to travel to Italy.

The works are on loan (through June 14) because the museum he directs in Florence, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Works Museum, which houses art made for the cathedral complex), has been closed for remodeling. It will reopen on Oct. 29, after two years of remodeling, in time for the National Conference of the Italian Catholic Church in Florence.

The future new structure will allow visitors to see a full-size model of the old façade of the cathedral. Into the wooden model, the museum will insert over-life-size statues of prophets seated well above the viewers’ eyes.

And directly across from this façade (the original was torn down in the 16th century but is known through drawings) visitors will be able to spin around and see the famous “Gates of Paradise,” the bronze doors of the baptistery, with 10 scenes from the Old Testament designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, which the artist and his patrons always intended to face the front of the church.

 

Not Just Famous Art

The New York exhibit features works created between 1400 and 1450, regarded as the dawn of the Italian Renaissance.

From the old façade, the marble St. John the Evangelist of 1408-1415 by Donatello and St. Luke by Nanni di Banco are each nearly 7 feet tall and weigh 1,600 pounds.

Donatello’s St. John is the first important statue where the artist took into account its original position high on the church front and adapted the proportions accordingly. With its elongated torso and short legs, it can only really be appreciated from below.

A few years later, Donatello carved two prophets for the bell tower, one of which is believed to represent Habakkuk (1423-25) but is popularly known as the “Zuccone” (pumpkin head) for its gaunt features and bald pate. It seems to express the anguish of the Old Testament prophet, whose book begins, “O Lord, how long must I call for help before you listen, before you save us from violence?”

The other prophet is Abraham, represented with his son Isaac at the very moment when God has intervened to keep him from sacrificing the boy. It is the only prophet statue with two figures instead of one, and it posed a particular challenge to Donatello.

Msgr. Verdon described it this way in a workshop on “Art and Catechesis” offered a few years ago to young volunteers in the Diocese of Florence: “The patriarch has just heard the voice of the angel that tells him not to kill his son Isaac, and, here, he looks toward God, his eyes filled with gratitude and love. This is the moment, when, in Genesis, God himself is moved by the faith of his creature — the faith and obedience of Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice what was most precious to him in the world — and is saying, ‘Because you have done this … I will bless you above all men, and in you the nations will call themselves blessed.’” Msgr. Verdon went on: “Here, Donatello represented Abraham, but we must imagine both, the man and God, who look at each other with tear-filled eyes.”

In a symposium at the Museum of Biblical Art on Feb. 21, Msgr. Verdon elaborated on the fact that Christians have always seen Isaac, portrayed here as the willing participant in his own impending death, as a prefigurement of Christ.

Indeed, he told the audience, this was the last prophet placed on the side of the bell tower that faces the church.

The worshipper would pass this Christlike figure of the vulnerable boy, whose body twists in the opposite direction from Abraham, as he or she walked toward the church and altar where Christ’s sacrifice was celebrated in the Mass.

As Pope Francis said on the Second Sunday of Lent, about Moses and Elijah appearing next to Christ at the Transfiguration, Christ shows he is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets: that “everything begins and ends in Jesus.”

These words take visual form in the Florentine sculptures now in New York, as visitors walk in our imaginations past the bell tower, with its looming prophets in their lofty niches, through the front portal flanked by the seated evangelists and into the church.

From there, it is on to the altar to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, just as the readings for each Sunday Mass take us from Old Testament to Psalm and from epistle to Gospel — and, ultimately, to Christ.

 

The Musical Side

The Museum of Biblical Art is the only venue for this extraordinary loan exhibit from Florence, but there is another group of sculptures from the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo traveling to other American museums, including three of the 10 marble panels of the famous cantoria (singing gallery) by Luca della Robbia for Florence Cathedral. Music was an important part of the liturgy, then and now. Marian art is also included.

The panels are on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through May 17 in the exhibit “Make a Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral,” where they will be joined by lavishly illuminated choir books and a specially designed lectern. After the remodeling of the museum back in Florence, this singing gallery and a second famous one by Donatello will be shown in a new context, not merely as works of Renaissance art, but in a way that evokes the liturgy of which they were such an important part.

Nora Hamerman

writes from Virginia.

Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts