There are some very important relief sculptures on the front of Orvieto cathedral  which are not as well known as they deserve to be – perhaps because no one is quite sure who carved them. Lorenzo Maitani is the name usually put forward. He was chief architect and sculptor in charge of the building at the time they were made so he certainly deserves a lot of the credit. My purpose is to show it was Maitani who designed all. They are ground-breaking and beautiful regardless of who made them.

There seems to be general agreement that the sculptors were Sienese. Orvieto was Sienese territory at the time and Maitani was Sienese. It is also established that some of these works were in place by 1307 when the boys in Orvieto were forbidden to play games around the cathedral because of the damage they had caused to the sculpture. The reliefs cover 112 sq.m. So we can be pretty sure that no one man could have done them by himself. It was quite normal to delegate such works to a team of assistants and one can just distinguish the exceptionally refined work of the master, from the very high quality of his assistants.  Maitani seems to have maintained an eagle eye on the quality  of his assistants' work. The whole facade is of a very high quality and fortunately for us in a very good state of preservation after 700 years of exposure to the elements.

Relief is an extremely demanding art form. Being halfway between the 3 dimensional world and the 2 dimensions of painting, it can easily slip one way or the other and change in style as a result. Here the uniformity of style is quite remarkable. The main difference between the earlier and the later being the density of figures in the composition. The earlier ones being less crowded than the latter.

The early ones are certainly the most refined and we can assume that Maitani carved them himself to serve as an example for his assistants to follow. These lower reliefs - of God creating the world are the earliest and represent a considerable step forward on what had been achieved up to that time in medieval Italy. Nicola Pisano was commissioned to make a pulpit for the cathedral in Siena in 1265. It was to become an important landmark in the history of Humanism. Pisano leapt clear of the symbolic representations of an earlier age and introduced an art based on observation – of how humans actually behave. What we would call body language today. He was also a formidably strong sculptor in the sense of being refined in observation and rugged in composition and execution. One gets the strong feeling from his reliefs that Pisano knew what he was doing. The surface of the original stone is strongly felt although he carves deeply. He uses a convention of relief that he rediscovered in Roman relief work. His work has an architectural quality which we admire today because he respects the original surface of the slab of stone he is working. Maitani's are different in that he respects the geometric integrity of his building by leaving large areas of the background of his reliefs uncluttered, it is as if his figures and decorative features are applied to the surface of the building like icing on a cake. Many French and English Gothic cathedrals have this same quality. It works very well.

This brings me to the point of discussing how Maitani would have transmitted his ideas to his assistants, which is crucial to my argument. My guess, based on my experience as a sculptor in bronze and stone; is that he would have modelled  the maquettes in wax on board cut to the same size as the blocks of stone from which these huge reliefs were made. These could then have been handed out to the various assistants as a precise model to copy in stone. This seems to be the only way the consistency could have been kept so uniform and the quality so high. It is not possible that many assistants could have had this sculptural sensibility at any period. The fact that none of these waxes have survived is easily accounted for by the reuse of the wax (always a valuable commodity) after the stone version had been realized.

Maitani's work is poised between the robustness of Pisano and the pictorial quality of Ghiberti's doors for the baptistery in Florence: (named by Michelangelo“The Gates of Paradise”) where the aim is to maximize apparent depth and give something of the illusion of a painting. Ghiberti's reliefs were done at the moment when  Brunelleschi had just demonstrated the new art of perspective. (100 years after Maitani). Purists feel that the emphasis on pictorial depth undermine the architectural quality of a door but the consistent quality of the work is very admirable.

We know that Michelangelo must have seen Maitani's works because he was a great admirer of Signorelli's frescoes within the cathedral. Maitani might have  seemed rather old fashioned to him. He would have been amazed at Ghiberti's pictorial skill and perhaps dismissive of Maitani's old-fashioned style. Personally I find the Signorelli's  technically able but positively repulsive and the humanism of Maitani immensely attractive. Let me explain why. (See my YouTube film)

The figure of God is not the old “God the Father” figure we expect in the Old Testament, more a young Christ-like personage – much more human. When we see him looking into Adam's chest for a rib, he does so with the rapt attention of a surgeon. His dealings with Eve are delightfully human. As he draws her from Adam's chest he seems to recognise 'trouble' immediately. She, new born and still feeling a bit groggy is somewhat taken aback by his severity. Again, besides the tree of Knowledge of good and of evil, (before she has put a foot wrong) he seems positively accusatory. Can we really blame her if she is very determined to take Adam with her in her disobedience. Little wonder they can see what's coming to them and hide themselves with such abject consciousness of their sin. It is all so wonderfully vivid. These reliefs must have had immense appeal at the time, they bring the Bible stories to life as in no other work of art of the period.

If we look at the Pisa pulpit of Nicola's son Giovanni Pisano, who is yet more famous than his father, we are comparing two works that are from precisely the same time. Giovanni's pulpit was commissioned in 1303. It is probably immediately obvious that in terms of the telling gesture or of flowing drapery around the figure Maitani's work is superior. Giovanni's woman feeling the temperature of the water comes the closest to Maitani's human sensibility. We can make a direct comparison of Giovanni's “Joseph Dreaming” with Maitani's “Adam” during the Eve-making operation. Surely Maitani's  work is again superior in the quality of the forms and in expression of sweet dreams. This is great Art. Though both Pisano and Duccio were very good story-tellers they never rose to quite these heights of empathy. Maitani is right out there on his own. Through body language he manages to take us back to the Garden of Eden and let us know what is really going on there. If the conveying of what it means to be alive and human is a part of Art then Maitani deserves our very great respect, yet I had never heard of him before I went to Orvieto.  

It is amazing!  Story-telling was not his only gift, as he had a wonderful gift for relief carving.

 His figures move around in a confined, concertinaed space with remarkable naturalness, he seemed to have a natural understanding of ancient contraposto long before his contemporaries had even heard of it, he was able to bend it to his own purposes. His grasp of anatomy was way beyond his contemporaries; furthermore he individualised his anatony (unlike Signorelli or Michelangelo 150 years later). His drapery flows around the figure of God augmenting the pose is an achievement not seen since classical times.

These reliefs predate Duccio's Maesta and Giotto's Arena Chapel. All three are mile-stones in the evolution of human understanding. Perhaps we have more in common with Maitani's humanity, feeling he is less of a stranger to us than either of the other two. I hope I have done something to raise his standing in the world and perhaps in so doing, reminding us of what art is all about. There is humour here also. See how Maitani tells the story of the three kings. No other artist imagined the doubt that might have been going on in their heads – “are you sure we have come to the right place?” asks the one on the left  “We have come all this way - this does not look like the birth of the Messiah to me.”  “Can you doubt the star?”  his friend reprimands.

Wherever you look on this facade you get a truly Shakespearian insight yet, Maitani is not a household name.

This brings me to the second point - of discussing how Maitani was able to transmit his ideas to his assistants. The film shows how this could be done very efficiently. As Maitani was in Orvieto most of his working life he had plenty of time to both create the designs and follow the work in execution by his workshop. It is known that he was responsible for the four great bronzes that adorn the facade of the Cathedral. They show us an extremely competent sculptor who clearly was entirely at home working in wax (one makes a wax model in preparation for a bronze by the lost wax process.) It might be difficult for a theoretician to see the same hand at work on the stone reliefs but as a practitioner I have no such problem. In fact the treatment of the angels hair in the bronze is extremely close to the way the hair is treated in many of the reliefs. Another recurrent theme is the band of muscle that we see at the bottom of the ribcage in the nude figures. This is unusually emphasized throughout and seems to be a Maitani trademark. Finally, it is the extremely high quality of the entire facade that leads me to insist that all is designed by Maitani, simply because a succession of workshop assistants cannot produce such brilliant and consistently characterful results.

Previous commentators have been so concerned with the different individual carvers that they have overlooked the overall homogeneity and special quality of the design. I hope with these observations to have put Maitani back where he belongs at the cutting edge of Sienese sculpture in 1300. Among the best in the world along with a little known temple “The Chariot of the Sun” in Konarak, India, which is contemporary and exhibits sculptures of the variety of human love, which I rate very highly. It would seem that 'the stars' were particularly favourable at this time for sculpture.