The Ass of Rimini Kneeling before the Host, Main altar by Donatello

Donatello

The Ass of Rimini Kneeling before the Host, Main altar, 1447–50, Bronze, 57 x 123 cm, Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Bridgeman Images

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A Stubborn Heifer

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Joost Joustra

Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them, like a lamb in a broad pasture? (Hosea 4:16)

Modelled in bronze relief by Donatello, St Anthony of Padua’s miracle could be read as a response to the prophetic question posed in Hosea 4. The townspeople of Rimini here stand in for the Israelites, and a mule performs the part of the heifer.

Anthony presented the beast of burden with the Blessed Sacrament, after the animal’s heretical Cathar owner had denounced Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The mule, having been starved for three days straight, was presented with a choice between his meal and the Host. In front of what seems to be an altar, the result of Anthony’s experiment takes centre stage, highlighted by Donatello’s tripartite classicizing architecture. The animal not only prefers the Host’s spiritual sustenance to his feed; it even kneels in reverence. Ultimately, its owner would follow suit and become one of Anthony’s most pious followers.

The bronze relief was probably positioned on the back of the High Altar in Padua’s most important church: the Basilica dedicated to St Anthony. It was placed next to a locked tabernacle that would have contained the actual Host, the tabernacle in turn flanked on the other side by a relief of St Anthony’s Miracle of the New-Born Babe. By their placement, the two scenes had their meaning amplified through eucharistic connotations (Johnson 1999: 653–54).

‘Can the Lord now feed them?’. The answer to Hosea’s rhetorical (?) question is a ‘yes’ in Donatello’s relief. We see the mule, so reputedly stubborn—as, by extension, is his owner—turning from a heifer into a ‘lamb in a broad pasture’ (v.16).

 

References:

Johnson, Geraldine A. 1999. ‘Approaching the Altar: Donatello’s Sculpture in the Santo’, Renaissance Quarterly, 52.3: 653–54