Pisa Pulpit: ‘Judge by the correct law!’
It is now over seven hundred years since the Italian Gothic sculptor Giovanni Pisano set chisel to stone. Though long regarded as his masterpiece, the Pisa Pulpit fell out of favour in the 20th century.
The rise of photography had given a new generation of historians outside of Italy access to the work, but photos failed to convey the pulpit’s complexity. Basing their opinions on two-dimensional reproductions, critics thought the carvings to be distorted and the narrative scenes grossly cluttered.
Art Historian Jules Lubbock examines a plaster cast of the pulpit in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections and argues that it was the critics who were ill-judged. As an inscription on the pulpit implores: ‘You who marvel, judge by the correct law!’
If you read almost any books about Giovanni Pisano and particularly about two great pulpits, one for Sienna and this last one for Pisa, they all say that the second pulpit is a disaster. And when you look at the actual photographs in all the main books and you look for instance at the passion panel, it really does look a complete total mess.
A whole load of figures who are kind of thrown together against a background. And so, I tended to concur with that until I was visiting the pulpit and looked at it sort of slightly more carefully and took in the fact that I was actually looking up at it from below and suddenly I sort of saw that those comments were based entirely upon photographs.
As I began to sort of get my eye in and to think about this, this just struck me as being a completely ludicrous idea. What really mattered was the way that you actually looked at these things, the angle at which you looked at them and that gradually if you looked at them from the right positions you discovered that Giovanni had worked out intricately how to actually make them look right from a particular point of view.
The pulpits are designed for the reading of the passage of the gospel, at the mass on a particular day. They were read in Latin which most people would not have understood. The panels on the pulpit tell the main story of the life of Jesus, from his birth through to his crucifixion followed by the last judgement. So, it’s a cycle of the life of Jesus from birth to death and then the aftermath in heaven.
We walk around the pulpit from left to right, in an anti-clockwise direction. Looking up we encounter each particular scene on a particular side serially, one scene at a time. And this is because of the curvature of the surface of the marble. When we look at it from the left we can only see the first scene clearly, the rest is kind of hidden because it’s sort of curved away to the right-hand side.
It’s almost like a kind of cinematic technique, in which we have a kind of fade from one particular scene to the next one. It’s extremely ingenious.
When we look up at the nativity, it’s taking place in a kind of cave and when we stand from this angle we’re kind of looking up into the cave and actually we’re almost looking up into the eyes of the ox and the ass and then as we turn a little way round, we then come to see the shepherds. While we’re here, it’s worth pointing out this caryatid figure of Hercules is actually anatomically quite accurate, so that although some the figures in the relief sculptures are very sort of distorted and rather grotesque this is clearly not because Giovanni didn’t know how to make a naturalistic figure. Distortions are quite deliberate, they’re expressive, they’re in order to actually convey particular kinds of emotion, particular kinds of ideas.
Giovanni Pisano was born in Pisa around 1250, which is about 15 years before Dante. I think that essentially what Giovanni has done is to use the story of Christ’s passion to in a way reflect upon the absolutely abysmal political situation of his own times. I think that it has universal significance. It is a wonderfully told story of conspiracy, of treachery, of betrayal, of the miscarriage of justice, and of the prisoner being tortured before finally being executed by one of the barbaric methods of execution ever invented, namely crucifixion.
All those themes where things that everybody in the Italian cities at the beginning of the 14th century would have been unfortunately very familiar with.
We know one other thing about him. Giovanni was allowed to carve into the marble some inscriptions reading: to famous sculptors ‘and diverse figures, you who marvel at them judge then by the correct law’. So, he’s saying: right, there are these people who have criticized me for making these sculptures, but you have to actually use your intelligence to actually work out how these things are to be looked at. It wasn’t really until the 15th century that you find people who have quite clearly studied his work very carefully.
So, we’re standing in front of one of the most famous pieces of Renaissance art, The Gates of Paradise, for the Baptistery of Florence that were made by Lorenzo Ghiberti between 1425 and 1450. And they tell the story of the Old Testament rather than the New Testament. And it’s quite clear from the way that Lorenzo Ghiberti has actually arranged his figures that he had taken on all the lessons that Giovanni Pisano had to teach. Namely being able to see different aspects of the stories from different points of view is something that Ghiberti and Donatello, his contemporary, learned from Giovanni Pisano.
Giovanni Pisano undoubtedly had enourmous influence upon European sculpture thereafter. The English sculptor Henry Moore wrote the following:
‘If I were asked to choose ten great artists, the greatest in European art, I would put Giovanni Pisano among them. It would be because of his understanding of life and of people and if you asked me how I would judge great artists, it would be on this basis. It’s not because they were clever at drawing, or in carving, or painting, or designing. Their real greatness, to me, lies in their humanity.’
With thanks to
Victoria & Albert Museum
Henry Moore Foundation
Alamy Stock Photo
9 Lives Music
Full list of images shown
Giovanni Pisano, 1302-1310
Ca. 1865 cast
Victoria & Albert Museum
The interior of the Cathedral in Pisa
Inferno, from the Divine Comedy by Dante (Folio 1v)
Bartolomeo di Fruosino, 1430-1435
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Gates of Paradise
Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1424-1452 (sculpted)
Victoria & Albert Museum
The Burghers of Calais
Auguste Rodin, 1889
Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Shutterstock / Ritu Manoj Jethani
Henry Moore, 1971-1972
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / www.henry-moore.org 2018.
- ‘Pulpit’, Victoria & Albert Museum (collections online)
- Beth Harris and Dr. David Drogin, ‘Nicola Pisano, Pulpit, Pisa Baptistery, and Giovanni Pisano, Slaughter of the Innocents, Pulpit, Sant’Andrea church, Pistoia (Italy)’, Smarthistory, 25 November 2015
- ‘Giovanni Pisano’, Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Michael Ayrton and Henry Moore, Giovanni Pisano, Sculptor (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969)
- Jules Lubbock, Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006)
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