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Christ and Thomas Luca della Robbia

Artist

Luca della Robbia Florence [?] 1399/1400 – 1482 Florence

Culture European , Florentine , Italian , Tuscanese
Place of production Florence, Italy
Date 1463–1465
Object type sculpture
Medium, technique terracotta
Dimensions

45 × 22 × 15 cm, 6.5 kg

Inventory number 4974
Collection Sculpture
On view Museum of Fine Arts, Second Floor, European Sculpture 1350-1800, Gallery 1

The craftsmen, artists and doctors of Florence attempted to defend their interests by forming guilds. They located the guilds’ headquarters in the robust Gothic edifice originally intended as a market and wheat warehouse, the Orsanmichele, the facade of which was adorned with statues of each of the guilds’ patron saints.
In 1463 the merchants’ tribunal (Tribunale della Mercanzia) took over the statue niche of the Guelphs, a political party that supported the guilds, and commissioned Luca della Robbia, one of the most sought-after sculptors of the early Renaissance, to design a large statue group depicting Christ and Doubting Saint Thomas. As was custom at the time, the master made a small terracotta (fired clay) model of the planned monumental bronze. The apostle Thomas, doubting the resurrection, placed his hand in Christ’s side (John 20:24-29), thus gaining proof that Christ had indeed died, but was risen again. (The judges may have interpreted this story as a metaphor of their vocation: to ‘play the doubting Thomas’ until tangible evidence is found.) The scene is not dynamic; rather it is as if time stood still for the moment when Thomas accepts what for the human mind is incomprehensible.
The model, however, failed to please the commissioners, because in the end the bronze was cast not of this composition, but of one by another leading sculptor in the city, Andrea del Verrocchio. That group, far more dramatic, dynamic and monumental than Luca’s, can be seen to this day in Florence.

Manga Pattantyús

Catalogue entry

Luca della Robbia was one of the most outstanding sculptors in fifteenth-century Florence. He often collaborated with the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) and is regarded as the inventor of the glazed terracotta technique. The coloured majolica statues produced at the Della Robbia workshop from the midfifteenth century onwards rapidly became extremely popular. Even today, they decorate countless buildings in Florence. The Budapest terracotta statuette portrays Saint Thomas as he places his hands in Jesus’s wounds so that he might be persuaded that the Saviour had indeed risen from the dead. The narrative account from the Gospel according to John (20:24-29) was a popular topic of artistic works. Luca della Robbia’s Christ and Saint Thomas may have been a model for a niche in the outer wall of the Orsanmichele Church in Florence. The Florentine guilds and other bodies were responsible for the decoration of the church’s fourteen exterior wall niches; one of them belonged to the Mercanzia, a body supervising commerce and the Florentine guilds. The glazed terracotta coat of arms above the niche was ordered by the Mercanzia from Luca della Robbia in 1463, who then had a good chance of winning a commission to make a large-scale statue for the niche. In the end, however, for unknown reasons, his younger contemporary, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488), was entrusted with the task. The latter began working on the statue in 1467. It is his work that is visible in the wall niche on the Orsanmichele Church today. (In fact, the original is now inside the church, and a copy has been placed in the exterior niche.) Meanwhile, the small terracotta model in Budapest has preserved Luca della Robbia’s ideas for posterity. On the intimate statuette, the shaping of the figure of Saint Thomas exhibits affinities with other sculptural works produced in this period, including the angels visible on the bronze door (1445–1469) of the sacristy of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence. The Florentine sculptors often made small preliminary statues in the event of major orders. These statuettes were elaborated in detail and then painted, giving the customer a full impression of the statue before a final decision was made. The Budapest terracotta was such a preliminary work, elaborated in detail and painted. Traces of the paint are still visible today, with remnants of green on the base, of red and blue on Saint Thomas’s clothing, and of blue and green on Christ’s clothing. Given the manner of the painting, it is even possible that – unlike the statue of Christ and Saint Thomas by Verrocchio – Luca della Robbia’s design for the niche of the Orsanmichele Church was not for a bronze statue. Miriam Szőcs

Additional notes

The statue has come down to us in a fragmentary state: Christ’s head and right hand are missing. The head was at one time replaced by a nineteenth-century addition, which was later removed. The backsides of the figures are hollowed out. The statue bears traces of polychromy, green on the base, blue and green on Christ’s robe, red and blue on Saint Thomas’s. The painted Renaissance niche in which the piece had been placed when the Museum of Fine Arts acquired it could not have been its original setting, as it is inscribed ([SAN]CTA MARIA ORA PRO N[OBIS]).

This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.

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