The painting in the Santa Maria Novella 8/11

Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni Chapel 2/5

Ghirlandaio: a better storyteller than Gozzoli

By comparing two works of art, ‘The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ from 1486 by Ghirlandaio and Gozzoli’s ‘Arrival of Saint Augustine in Milan’ from 1464, Cadogan demonstrates that Ghirlandaio is the superior artist in depicting a story.147 There are rather striking differences between the ‘scene’ that both artists constructed for their figures and the story itself. Gozzoli created a simultaneous depiction in which Augustine can be seen three times: in the middle he arrives and he has just stepped off his horse. His servant helps him to take off his travelling clothes. Slightly to the right of the centre, in the loggia, Augustine kneels before Symmachus as the crowd watches.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ 1464 Sant’Agostino San Gimignano
Benozzo Gozzoli 'Arrival of Augustine in Milan' 1464 Sant'Agostino San Gimignano frescos

Lastly, on the far right, at the bottom of the picture plane, Augustine greets Ambrose. This last greeting occurs on the square in front of the loggia. The gallery resembles the Ospedale degli Innocenti quite a bit and is three bays wide and five deep. The vanishing point of the lines is below the centre of the picture plane. The horizontal axis is situated at about one third of the height of the vertical axis. This clearly marks the foreground, the centre and the background (rising towers). Augustine thus appears in three different places in as many episodes of the story.

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ 1486
Domenico Ghirlandaio 'Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple' 1486 Tornabuoni Chapel frescos

Ghirlandaio also painted a loggia as a background, but this one is placed exactly in the middle of the image plane. The bays have a flat ceiling and no cross vaults. Just like Gozzoli, Domenico used a central perspective. The horizontal line (eye level) is intersected by a vertical section, so that the vanishing point is near the priest’s elbow. The main action, the expulsion of Joachim from the temple, takes place at the front, slightly to the right of the middle. The second action is placed in the middle of the image plane, in the temple itself.

Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ Augustine depicted three times
Ghirlandaio ‘Rejection of Joachim’s Sacrifice’
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Gozzoli 'Arrival of Augustine in Milan' Augustine depicted three times frescos

The main difference between the work of Gozzoli and that of Domenico is the architecture. Ghirlandaio’s temple seems monumental, in contrast to Gozzoli’s. Its impressive effect is achieved by painting pillars instead of columns. In addition, the temple takes up a large part of the picture plane. In Gozzoli’s case, the proportions between the building and the people are remarkable. The people look like dwarfs compared to the temple. Because of the higher placed vanishing point Ghirlandaio uses, the figures fit the architecture much better.’

Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’
Gozzoli 'Arrival of Augustine in Milan' frescos

Not only is the building more convincing, but Domenico’s work is also more legible than that of Gozzoli. This is not so much due to the use of fewer figures (fifteen figures as opposed to eighteen with Gozzoli), but more because Ghirlandaio shows only two events and Gozzoli three. The legibility is further enhanced by the clear spatial layout and the two actions that are very effectively placed in the image plane. Finally, Domenico has created a sharply defined foreground and middle ground by using architecture. The hierarchy is immediately clear: the central theme, the expulsion of Joachim from the temple, has been put in the foreground. In addition, Domenico has isolated this event from the surrounding figures. This is not the case with Augustine kneeling before Symmachus. These two – just like Augustine who is being removed from his cloak and spurs – are part of a crowd so that the attention does not fall directly on the three events.

The temple of Ghirlandaio is immediately clear to the viewer: a Greek cross, consisting of five bays. In the background, a loggia of seven arcades, flanked by two identical palazzos, closes off the space. This quickly draws the viewer’s gaze to the foreground. In Gozzoli’s work, the eye of the viewer can gaze into the distance. This effect is further enhanced by the diagonals and the decrease in size of the columns as they are placed further back. The depth of the loggia looks strange compared to the building on the right. A closer look reveals that this building is not part of the loggia, but a separate building with a wall that is too thin. In short, Gozzoli’s building confuses the viewer.

The fresco is so convincing because of the clear layout of the space and the way in which the figures are placed in the scene. The manner in which Ghirlandaio depicts the actions contributes greatly to its legibility. The theme, the expulsion of Joachim, not only catches the eye immediately, but also impresses the viewer. Joachim is pushed down the stairs by the priest. He turns his head and looks in amazement at the priest, clasping his sacrifice that was not accepted: the lamb. The gaze and attitude of the priest and his opened lips, which seem to speak, betray a rather resolute, if not aggressive, action. In the centre, where all the lines disappear, the second event of the story can be seen. The priest behind the altar receives the sacrificial lamb with open arms. The man whose sacrifice is accepted, stands in the middle while Joachim is chased out of the centre. Both stories, about accepting and rejecting the sacrifice, are distributed along the middle axis. The spectator, passers-by and the other participants are symmetrically divided on both sides of these events.

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ 1486
Domenico Ghirlandaio 'Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple' 1486 Tornabuoni Chapel frescos

Gozzoli depicts three scenes from Saint Augustine’s life within one frame. Augustine can be recognized by the hat he is wearing in the three scenes. Gozzoli suggested the idea of time by painting the three events at different places in the same scene. Each story is emphasized by means of the architecture: in front of and in the loggia and lastly in front of the arcade of the hallway (far right). Here, as with Domenico, figures are depicted that ‘speak’ through gestures and poses. Because Gozzoli’s painterly space and architecture are unclear and the groups of figures are not defined well enough, the different episodes of the narrative are not connected to each other. Moreover, the sequence of the three events remains unclear. As a viewer, you can only understand the story if you are familiar with Augustine’s life.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ 1464 Sant’Agostino San Gimignano
Benozzo Gozzoli 'Arrival of Augustine in Milan' 1464 Sant'Agostino San Gimignano frescos

The Birth of Mary

The interior where the birth takes place, could be from one of the Florentine palazzi. Vasari describes this scene as follows:

‘‘The second scene contains the Nativity of the Madonna executed with great care, and among the other noteworthy details Domenico painted here, there is a window set into the building in perspective which lights the chamber and deceives the onlooker. Besides this, while Saint Anne is in bed receiving a visit from several women, Domenico introduced several other women who are carefully washing the Virgin

—one pours water, another prepares the swaddling clothes, yet another does one chore or another, and while one attends to her own task, there is another woman who holds the little Child in her arms and makes Her laugh with a smile, expressing a feminine grace that is truly worthy of a painting like this one—not to mention many other expressions worn on the faces of all the other figures.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’, trans. J.C. Bondanella and P.E. Bondanella, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, part II p. 217 (original edition 1568).

Birth of Mary
Ghirlandaio ' Birth of Mary' Tornabuoni Chapel frescos

The cheerful dancing and music-making putti above the panelling are based on the cantorie of Donatello and Luca della Robbia made fifty years earlier. The illumination of the putti is not only caused by the natural light from the three gothic windows in the chapel on the right, but also by a painted window through which light flows in. This light, which of course also comes from the right, divides the relief frieze with putti into a section that stands in the shade and a second section that receives a lot of light.

Ghirlandaio detail putti: Birth of Mary Tornabuoni chapel frescos

At the feet of these putti is written in Latin: ‘Your birth, oh Virgin and Mother of God, brings joy to the whole universe’. Under this text, in the two outer panels, the painter put his signature, ‘GRILLANDAI’, and on the left the name of his family, ‘BIGHORDI’. According to Vasari, Ghirlandaio got his name from the word ‘ghirlanda’: a wreath of flowers. Domenico was the first to invent a ghirlanda as a head ornament for Florentine ladies.148 At the top of the stairs, the meeting of Mary’s parents can be seen: Joachim and Anne.

Ghirlandaio ‘Anne and Joachim’
Detail The Birth of Mary
Ghirlandaio 'The Birth of Mary' detail: ‘Anne and Joachim’ Tornabuoni Chapel frescos

They lovingly embrace each other, knowing that Anna will give birth to a child despite her old age and Joachim’s refused sacrifice. This is the only scene in which Ghirlandaio painted a second story within the same frame. However, this second story, in which the Golden Gate has become a door, is well separated from the central theme: the birth of Mary. Ghirlandaio pulled off a clever trick by painting two levels in the interior. This creates space and time in two different places for the meeting of Joachim and Anna as well as for the birth of their daughter Mary. It is for good reason that the painter places Joachim and Anne high and far above the foreground.

Moreover, Mary’s parents are considerably smaller than the figures in The Birth of Mary, which took place later. Only the halo and the clothing (despite a different colour) of Anne are the same. Ghirlandaio uses all of this to make his central theme clear to the viewer. Ludovica Tornabuoni slowly walks with her retinue to the newborn child. Her upright posture and the beautiful rich brocade robe resemble a human variant of the richly decorated pillars. The woman kneeling with the child sees Ludovica enter.

Ghirlandaio Ludovica Tornabuoni detail from The Birth of Mary
Ghirlandaio Ludovica Tornabuoni 'Birth of Mary' detail from Birth of Mary Tornabuoni Chapel frescos

Because of her twisted head and her gaze, the biblical scene is connected to the world of the Tornabuonis. The solemn static posture of the figures on the right is interrupted by the woman on the left pouring water into a basin. Her posture, the position of her legs, but above all the folds of her clothes flapping backwards, reveal all sorts of movement. Ghirlandaio has made a preliminary study of this woman.

Study drawing Birth of Mary Uffizi
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  Birth of John the Baptist
Ghirlandaio Study drawing Birth of Mary Uffizi frescos   Ghirlandaio Birth of John the Baptist detail Tornabuoni Chapel frescos

This drawing, which measures twenty-two by seventeen centimetres, shows that Ghirlandaio in his final painted version deviated slightly from his preliminary study, mainly with regard to the sleeves and folds. On the opposite wall, depicting the birth of John the Baptist, a woman enters the room on the right, who in terms of her body movement is strongly reminiscent of the woman pouring water.

A study of the entire composition has been preserved. The fresco shows considerably less depth than the compositional study. Presumably to emphasize the figures. A deeper space would distract too much from the figures in the story. In addition to this study drawing, Ghirlandaio also produced a cartoon of the head of one of the women from Ludovica’s retinue. Cartoons were used in many places in the chapel.149 Ghirlandaio rarely used the so-called spolveri method for his cartoons as it was rather time consuming. After all, many holes had to be pricked into the cartoon along the drawn lines.

Compositional study for The Birth of The Virgin Mary and Child and detail The British Museum London
Compositional study for The Birth of The Virgin Mary and Child The British Museum London

More often he traced the outlines of the cartoon directly on the plaster wall with a stylus. This less laborious method was adopted by other painters, including Signorelli. The drawing of the head, which is now in Chatsworth, is probably a duplicate of a used cartoon. A cartoon was put on a moist plaster wall and often had to be cut into manageable pieces. In this way, used cartoons were always crumpled, cracked and worn-out. The story of Mary is continued in the middle.

Birth of The Virgin cartoon Chatsworth Collection
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Geboorte van Maria karton Chatworth Collection

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