If a family owned one work of art in Renaissance Florence, it was likely a Madonna and Child, a devotional object around which domestic life and religious experience centered. I like to imagine that one work accompanied a person through life. A child might have been encouraged to feel close to the Infant Jesus by placing flowers in front of the Madonna. A young bride might have lit a candle nearby and contemplated her future as a mother. An elderly woman might have recalled holding her children in her arms. These works would have changed in meaning over the course of a Renaissance owner’s life.
If any Madonna and Child has seen me through my adult life, it is Donatello’s exquisitely carved Madonna of the Clouds. It embodies all the things I love about Renaissance sculpture. Its inventive low relief technique attests to Donatello’s creativity—he explored this most common subject with a clever approach and extraordinary insight. I became an art historian because of Donatello. For me, his works are so true: to their subjects, their materials, and their emotions. They touch my heart. Madonna of the Clouds was the first MFA work of art I ever saw. As a graduate student, I traveled with my mother to Fort Worth, Texas, to see an exhibition about Donatello and Italian sculpture. Madonna of the Clouds was there. We both fell in love with it. I am awed and humbled that, as a curator, I get to care for this incredible object. How best to display it, how to light it, how to talk about it: these have been high points of my work at the MFA.
Since I began working at the MFA in early 2001, I have come to this sculpture for comfort, inspiration, pleasure, and reassurance. I visited it just after the September 11 attacks devastated the neighborhood where I grew up in New York City. I sought it after my mother passed away, and I realized that the way I look at images of the Madonna and Child, each with its own message of love, sorrow, or hope, had changed forever. Now that my own mother was gone, I saw even the ones I knew best in a different way, with a slight tinge of grief.
These days, when I think about Madonna of the Clouds, I see it differently. I typically delight in the virtuosity of the carving, the energy of the flying angels, the sense that Mary understands things will be alright in the end. Now, in this time of the pandemic, when our vulnerabilities are so apparent, I see a mother holding on to her child, trying to protect him but knowing she can’t. It appears more tragic to me now. The angels seem to fly frantically around the figures; they worry me. We long to believe that our protectors can keep us safe, but, like the Baby Jesus here, we know better. Donatello once again sees into my heart.
I also see the ephemeral qualities of Donatello’s relief. The figures, so delicately carved, float through the air and fly through the clouds. The marble shifts and ripples like wind or water; it reminds me of how things change and what remains. As soon as I can, I will see Madonna of the Clouds in person again. I will think of my colleagues who have recently left or will leave the MFA because of this precarious time in our world. I will honor their commitment to bring art into people’s lives. Marble endures. Lives change, and we often have little control over those changes. Maybe Madonna of the Clouds can help people process these experiences. It does that for me, just as it did for its Renaissance viewers, centuries ago.