The Baptistry of the Cathedral of Siena; inside, the baptismal fountain, and on it the relief bronze of the presentation of St. John the Baptists’s head, by Donatello — Once the christians figured they should depict, visually, a familiar story by placing what happened first farthest to the left and what happened last furthest to the right; later Michelangelo would paint The Last Judgement as a complete scene, but a still where what occurs on the left or bottom is at the same time as what is right or top. In-between these two cultural moments there is this relief by Donatello. Like the earlier Christian artists, Donatello wants to compress time into one static image; within this relief we get not only the presentation of the head, but in the background The Baptist is being beheaded. But I am not interested in this phrase “compressing time into one static image” (what it seems the two paintings share), rather the relationship between earlier and the later.
To a modern viewer, this relationship probably seems like a kind of playfulness. Those older Christian works, being read from left to right, immediately lends itself to be compared to a book, or the written words, which are similarly read left to right. Donatello plays on this by creating a kind of play on words (in the English language) between past, present and background, foreground, where it is required to actively look to remember the past (as you must strain to see the background) but the present is almost totally, easily available to the sight. This image of Donatello’s arrives, historically, in the middle of the revolution of perspective in the Western visual arts. Donatello uses this new science in the depiction, perhaps as a way to fit that same narrative element into the new realism in the arts. The effect of this is the surprise that comes when the viewer sees, first The Baptist’s head in the foreground, and then, in a kind of looking back into time, seeing the same man having his head removed. In non-realistic painting (those which do not attempt to recreate what the world looks like to us in the day-to-day) we may not be surprised this left-to-right narrative within the work, but if we turned a corner and at once saw the same man dead in front of us and picking an apple a little farther off, then time, for us, we be broken.
—William Harrington, SJC Student, Abroad in Roma