Beautiful tabernacle in the form of an antique facade of a single large level, crowned by S-shaped scrolls. The relief features a vertical axis of symmetry to create a space imbued with classical sobriety: the arcade flanked by pilasters evokes Roman triumphal arches; the presence of the Ionic capitals decorated with acanthus leaves is a direct quote from Roman architecture; the two volutes at the top are inspired by motifs borrowed from antiquity which became a very popular architectural feature during Renaissance.
A semicircular tympanum decorated with a shell crowned by an arch engraved with the inscription "Panis Vitae celestis" ("the bread of celestial life") breaks the monotony of the straight line and clearly marks the place of the door where the host was kept.
The shell was, in Roman art, a symbol of life and resurrection. This symbolism linked to birth and regeneration is constantly repeated in the evangelical iconography.
Two engraved two-tone columns frame the central opening and shows decorations which exalt the liturgical function of the work: the chalice with the host is a clear reference to the rite of communion and to the corpus christi which was kept in the tabernacle. On the opposite side, classical forms are borrowed and adapted to the Christian symbolism: the ship represents the Church itself; the dolphins, here represented in a grotesque form combining heterogeneous elements, are one of the symbols identified with Jesus by the early Christians; the base on which the ship leans are in the shape of a vase with two handles of ancient inspiration. As Alberti said in his book of re aedificatoria, "this does not mean a paganization of Christianity but a Christianization of pagan antiquity".
The lower part of the tabernacle presents a floor with a geometric design combining rectangular, circular and oval figures in a chromatic contrast which accentuates the perspective.
One reason why architecture appears so frequently in Italian Renaissance works is that the depiction of buildings was particularly desirable at a time when artists were learning and demonstrating their ability to work with a perspectival system. To display the full range of perspectival skills, the artist needed to include measured space bounded by geometric and rectilinear forms which proclaimed their scale and proportions. A paved floor was an ideal ground to establish the base for the correct diminution of forms receding into distance.
The chromatic contrast between the light stone and the parts made in black stucco enlivens the relief and fits perfectly into the aesthetic ideals of Tuscan Renaissance architecture. The bicromismo exalts the geometric harmony of the facades in accordance with Vitruvio's rules and is inspired by the marble inlays that covered many Roman architectures.
The contrast also made the relief easily readable from afar and drew the attention of the faithful to communion, the central moment of the Christian rite.
The technique used for the decoration is the "tarsia" or inlay, which consists of hollowing out the stone to inlay pieces of another material in it and embellish the surface of the work. The most decisive influence on development of intarsia was the emergence of the theory of linear perspective, a means of producing two-dimensional representations of the three-dimensional visual word. This non-contiguous technique was used especially by master cabinet makers and represented in the Renaissance one of the essential manifestations of the evolution of taste as well as a privileged way to apply the recently discovered laws of perspective. Intarsia revetements became an integral part of Tuscan decorative tradition both in architecture and in interiors furnishings.
As André Chastel has shown: "The expansion of the intarsio is not just an episode of the interior design; the new technique is located at the crossroads of all the arts. The marquetry seems to have preceded the painting; finally, through the systematic administration of geometric shapes and perspective settings, it is closely linked to the theme of the "architectural view". It is possible to recognize a central phenomenon of the period ".
This tabernacle was made with the same technique used for the floor of San Miniato al Monte also called “a risparmio” (literally saving technique) in contraposition to the “a campitura” technique: the spaces left hollow from the carving are filled with niello, a special substance also used in goldwork. Niello is a black, pitch-based mixture that serves to emphasize the design.
This black paste, in contrast with the white of the marble, made it possible to create a chiaroscuro which enhanced the design of the decoration and accentuated the rendering in perspective. Our tabernacle presents an “a risparmio” technique because the black paste fills the hollow parts of the sculpture, the figures are therefore dark; in the "a campitura" technique the dough was distributed over the entire surface and the figures were incised, resulting lighter than the dark background.
The composition of the black paste used for the filling varied in different regions and times; in our tabernacle the paste used is composed of a mixture of glue, stucco and pigment.
This sophisticatedly decorated tabernacle immediately recalls this fascination with the antique typical of the Renaissance.
The publications in the middle of the 15th century of research carried out by great theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti or Filippo Brunelleschi have a major influence on the arts. Renewed interest in architecture and perspective research influenced the stylistic choices of artists and the taste of collectors. Thus, our tabernacle is, from several points of view, a rare testimony of its time.