Donatello and People Watching.

Donatello's St. George at the moment when he meets the dragon, 1417, Florence.

Parisian children at a puppet show of St. George and the Slaying of the Dragon, 1963.
St. George is about to meet the dragon.

The Slaying of the Dragon!
This schiacchiato* relief, also by Donatello, is set in the base of the above sculpture. 

St. George goes in for the kill!

After driving back and forth to New Hampshire and talking about the brilliant works of great artists all week, I am tired. As a proper humanist I have worked both body and mind. You'd think that the last thing I would want to do is ponder more art. But no. I was dreaming last night about three things: 1. the quiz that I needed to write (an hour before passing it out in class) and 2. how incredibly lucky I am that I get to read and talk about art every day, learning all the time. This kind of work is not for making money (you do, but as any adjunct will tell you it is besides the point in many ways). This week in class we discussed Renaissance artists. Among them, Donatello and his extraordinary skills; his diversity, his ability to depict such a range in figures, his innovative ideas and expressions of psychological characterizations. I think it was these ideas that inspired my third dream.

Judith and Holofernes, Bronze, 1450's, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
Mary Magdalen, Poplar, 1450's, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence.

The third thing, from either my dream last night or a daydream, I'm not sure, was a hazy fleeting thought. It was based on the judgmental values of individuals. This is something that is important in art history, of course, as we all look at art with a different unique set of values and world views and life experience. 

When I arrived home I drifted toward my Netflix queue, looking subconsciously for something that might help me realize this kind of abstract, yet mundane thought. I turned on Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin, from 2008. This is a film in which there is no dialogue; the camera is focused on a group of women watching a film. All we see are lights flickering across their quietly expressive faces and what we hear is a moving tale. The film that they are watching is based on the stories of Khosrow and Shirin. These stories are from a medieval Persian love-poem filled with tragedy, usually linked to the artist Nizami. The story of the ill fated pair Khosrow, a pre-Islamic Sassanian king, and Shirin, an Armenian princess, expresses the metaphysics of spiritual longing.

Shirin, Abbas Kiarostami, 2008.

A scene from the beginning of the tale.
Khosrow (secretly) observes Shirin bathing, 1431, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Khosrow at the castle of Shirin, Timurid Period, Iran, 15th century, Freer Sackler, DC.

Somehow, watching these people watch, each with their own individual interpretation of the narrative got me thinking again of my dreamy thought. I was swept away, imaging what connections they were making. The thing about art is that the viewer is always trying to find a way in, a way to relate. How were these women relating? For ninety minutes I never once got tired of trying to figure it out. My imagination was constantly animating. You can read a nice description of Shirin here. Of course, the director may have tricked me into thinking that these Iranian women were responding to Khosrow and Shirin, but it's possible that, as the article discusses, the actresses were instructed to meditate on their own love stories. Incredibly intimate and moving.

In the Spirit of the Beehive, Frankenstein is projected for a small town in Spain in the 1940's. In this scene, the audience is spied on. Their wide ranging responses to the film are captured.

Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973.

One of my favorite things to do at our local grocery store is stare at people (discreetly! with sunglasses on!) and imagine their entire lives. Every detail is developed based on the available iconography. Clothing, facial features, eyes especially, ornamentation, and most of all: the items in their shopping cart. I want to know the love stories of all of these people. 

*schiacchiato: flat, low relief carving style invented by Donatello


  1. This is your best post so far. Ruminations on audiences. Your interspersal of images and ideas is tapping into something basic and unique to blogging and indeed exploiting it as an artistic medium. I love the Shirin clip- I was startled to become conscious of my own ways of gazing as an audience member as I watched it.

  2. I don't normally post things, but felt a need to post here. I absolutely love this post and your love of art history is obvious from your blog. The funny thing that caught my eye was the random Market Basket post. I use to live in Rye, NH. and that was my supermarket. I now live in Dallas, Texas and attend the University of North Texas. I am an unconventional student (over 45 years of age) at UNT studying History (concentration on American/Southern History and Indian Tribes of the South & Southwest) with a minor in Art History. I was doing a little research on Donatello this morning and loved your blog. Thanks for posting.

    Shannon Rexrode-Thompson Critchlow