Here are some images selected, at least initially, with Palm Sunday in mind. They have three things in common: they are of the same subject – the Entry into Jerusalem; they are both relief carvings; and they are both by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti, who worked in the first half of the 15th century, is famous for creating the bronze doors of the Baptistry in Florence. The first is wood polychrome, that is painted wood, and the second is from the north doors of the Baptistry, cast into bronze.
Relief carving commonly seen in the sacred art of the Eastern church (I have written about this here). Its limited three-dimensionality ensures a flatness that suits the intention of the iconographic style to portray the heavenly realm, which is outside time and space. I would love to see artists from the Roman Church following the example of their Eastern brethren and producing relief carvings in Western forms. The most obvious place to start would be to develop the Western iconographic forms, such as the Romanesque as there are close parallels with what the East has done. However there is relief carving in more naturalistic forms too. Ghiberti worked in the period when the Renaissance and the gothic overlapped and to my eye, the polychrome reminds me of a gothic carving, while the bronze relief seems to have aspects of a classical naturalism that points forward the masters of a hundred years later.
The reason that relief carving might be effective today is that the strange world that it occupies, which sits somewhere between two and three dimensions always seems to lend to the image a symbolic quality. This would help to counter the great disease of modern naturalistic styles, which is sentimentality. All Christian art, no matter what style, involves a balance between naturalistic appearances and idealism (or stylisation) which communicates invisible truths (Pius XII talked of a balance of ‘realism’ and ‘symbolism’, in Mediator Dei). The tendency of artists today is to swing to the extremes. Those who wish to paint or sculpt naturalistically tend to forget the symbolic content; and I am suggested that relief carving would push them into including it.
David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.