The Art of Preaching and the Art of the Pulpit

by Elizabeth Lev, appearing in Volume 41

Nicola Pisano’s panels of the Nativity (left) and Last Judgment (right) on his pulpit in the Pisa baptistery. Photo: Careddu

To a typical secular visitor to many European churches, pulpits might look like errant remnants of an archaic age. Planted against a column or roped off like a fragile museum exhibit, these towering structures bear little resemblance to the flimsy poly-purpose stands parked next to modern altars for the readings, Gospel, homily, and more.

Yet when the first massive pulpits sprung up in naves to elevate the protagonists of preaching, they were a gravitational center for the congregation and, at times, a locus for wondrous art.

From Ambo to Pulpit

Christian writers, such as Cyprian of Carthage, alluded to pulpits as early as the third century, although without a clear definition of their purpose. Derived from the Latin word for platform and generally associated with theater furnishings, early pulpits have been interpreted by scholars as presbyteries, lecterns, rostra (a platform for public speaking), or screens.

This ambiguity lends itself well to confusion between pulpits and ambos. Ambos, from the Greek term for “step” or “elevation,” were platforms for proclaiming the Gospel and the Epistles.  In the sixth-century choir in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, visitors can still see two ambos, on either side of the enclosure, meant to distinguish the Gospel from other readings.

In Rome, early ambos were often made of marble, making for a stately, albeit austere appearance. They were often incorporated into liturgical furnishings, whether the iconostasis in Eastern churches or choir enclosures in the West. Spoken scriptural exegesis, however, was not always part of the worship service, and therefore did not have a specific site. The confusion began when ambos were occasionally used for preaching as well as readings.


The Pulpit’s Golden Age

By the end of the thirteenth century, the ambo fell into disuse, supplanted by the pulpit, a free-standing structure placed in the middle of the nave. This evolution heralded the golden age of pulpit design, coinciding with the rise of the preaching orders, as well as the establishment of the universities. Placed among the congregation for better acoustics as well as more immediate engagement with the listeners, these new pulpits would become stages for a new breed of superstar preachers.

The newly-opened universities in Bologna, Paris, London, and Padova established orderly arrangements for teaching. Professors sat on raised chairs, where they elucidated texts for students arrayed in neat rows below. By contrast, church pulpits were closely crowded by people. Preaching was intended to move the soul: fiery, honeyed, or pleading, it could provoke repentance or incite zeal.

Medieval university settings were the harbingers of Protestant churches, with their tidy pews and erudite sermons. Preachers and pulpits, on the other hand, more closely resembled a modern rock concert, with ecstatic listeners absorbing the messages through ears, eyes, heart, and mind. One old Northern tale recounts the Devil’s singular fear of preachers, since “often by a single sermon, [they] snatched from him persons he had held in his power for thirty or forty years.”

While in some cases the pulpits were improvised out of raised wooden crates, as when Saint Bernardine of Siena spoke in thronged public piazzas, the thirteenth century saw the perfecting of the pulpit. Elegant materials, symbolic elements, and beautiful images enthralled the faithful and reinforced the power of preaching, described by one German handbook as, “the way of life, the ladder of virtue and the gate of paradise.”

In this era when Thomas Aquinas was studying Aristotle and architects like Nicola Pisano were examining ancient illustrations of Greco-Roman myths for inspiration, an exciting struggle ensued as Christians sought to capture some of the pagans’ achievements for their own use. The liberal arts, especially rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic, were the foundation of effective preaching.


The First Great Pulpit

The first great pulpit to transform the visuals of preaching was built by Nicola Pisano in the Pisa baptistery between 1255 and 1260. The hexagonal pulpit complemented the round form of the baptistery and its octagonal font, while the podium where the preacher stood was lifted onto seven slender columns of marbles sourced from ancient monuments. Three of these columns rested upon carved lions crouching over their prey. Pisano would use this kind of innovative column base many times to symbolize the pagan world tamed by Christianity.

Five carved marble panels encircle the podium. The scenes are densely crowded, not only reflecting the horror vacui style (aversion to empty spaces) common to the classical sarcophagi they were modeled after, but also the crush of people that would crowd around the pulpit itself. The reliefs were each set in a red marble frame to lend emphasis to the individual sections.

Three scenes focused on Christ’s childhood—the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation in the Temple, followed by the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment. The images, placed above the heads of the faithful, were quite visible and striking in their details. In the Nativity panel, several scenes are jumbled together, allowing the artist to explore different reactions: Mary seems to recoil in surprise at the Annunciation, an understandable response, yet she recovers her composure as she regally reclines next to the crib of Christ. Newborn Jesus receives a bath below while a goat scratches an ear with his hoof. The miraculous and the mundane peacefully coexist in this panel.

Pisano’s Last Judgment also appears as a sea of bodies, but this time churning like waves around a majestic Christ, the peace of the saved and the anguish of the damned rendered visible as the faithful listened to exhortations of the preachers. These sculpted reliefs, the first since antiquity, were emulated in other pulpits produced by Nicola and his workshop. They perhaps served as inspiration for Dante’s description of the images admonishing the prideful in the first circle of Purgatory, “so adorned with carvings, that not only Polyclètus, but Nature, too, would there be put to shame.”

A later example of the visuals of preaching is Donatello’s remarkable pulpit, set as a balcony in the exterior façade of the Prato cathedral. Produced in 1428, it was placed above the cathedral square for the vast numbers that congregated for the sermons. Its marble panels proclaimed that in a world rife with uncertainty and suffering, the Gospel brings solace and joy, words of hope for the world.

Donatello used his signature relievo schiacciato, or flat relief, to create the impression of fluid movement, his carved laughing children cavorting along the panels. Some play musical instruments, while others dance around the circular pulpit, offering a glimpse of the pure jubilation awaiting the faithful in heaven.


A Waning Passion

The passion for pulpits waned in the High Renaissance, perhaps overtaken by choirs as people gravitated to musical polyphony, but the Counter-Reformation witnessed their triumphant return. The Jesuits, working to reignite the faith in Europe and to propagate the Gospel in newly discovered lands, revitalized the art of preaching, weaving catechesis, the challenge of the Gospel, and the promise of salvation into compelling discourse.

Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti compared artists to tacit preachers, whose images could teach and delight the masses. In his treatise Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images, published in 1582, the Archbishop of Bologna shared some of his own secrets for preaching to the erudite and impressionable and those moved by the spiritual versus those affected by aesthetics.

The pulpits that emerged in this, the swan song of artistry for oratory, were dazzling. The Jesuits commissioned massive pulpits laden with magnificent ornament. The wooden pulpits carved in the Netherlands by Theodoor Verhaegen and Pieter Valckx in the eighteenth century astound for their wealth of symbolic décor. With personifications of continents supporting the preacher’s box, angels gamboling around the volutes—some riding exotic animals, others playfully raising curtains—the pulpits illustrated the evangelical mission of the Church while capturing the awe of the Incarnation.

Often, they were surmounted by a large shell, not only to improve amplification, but also to allude to the pearls of wisdom scattered by the speakers, meant to be cherished by the flock. The details and delights embedded in these pulpits mirrored the treasures of the Gospel message unpacked by the preachers.

Perhaps the modern flock is no longer swayed by theatrical sermons on ornate stages, more convinced by the scaled-down, spotlighted focus of a TED talk. Looking at these splendid pulpits it is hard not to feel a nostalgia for the days when the persuasion of words was allied to the power of beauty.