Florence day 5 (continuation 19)

Painting in the Santa Maria Novella 11/11

Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni Chapel 5/5

The preaching of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Christ and Herod’s Banquet

In the third band at the top, the preaching and baptism of Christ are painted. We then see John the Baptist preaching in front of a crowd.

Ghirlandaio ‘The preaching of John the Baptist’ 
Ghirlandaio 'The preaching of John the Baptist'  Tornabuoni Chapel

John is standing right in the middle of a rock as he speaks about the coming of Christ. Behind John on the left and high up in the picture plane we see Christ as he approaches. This nicely connects the two painted stories that border each other. This applies both to the figure of Christ, as well as to the landscape that runs behind the painted architecture that frames each story. In typical fashion, Ghirlandaio makes use of classical architecture, including triumphal arches like in his Adoration of the Magi. In the preaching, he used a classical image as an example for the naked child under John’s feet.157

In the adjoining fresco we see Christ again, but now in a central position. Ghirlandaio used an earlier work he had painted around 1473 in the Sant’Andrea a Brozzi. The figures in this early work, especially John the Baptist and Christ, are copied from Andrea del Verrocchio.

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Baptism of Christ’  San Domenico Sant’Andrea a Brozzi
Domenico Ghirlandaio 'Baptism of Christ'  San Domenico Sant'Andrea a Brozzi

In the Cappella Maggiore, Ghirlandaio tries to surpass Verrocchio. The two kneeling angels are also clearly based on the Baptism of John by Verrocchio. However, these angels were not made by Verrocchio, but by his pupil: Leonardo da Vinci.

Ghirlandaio ‘The baptism of Christ’ and zoomed in 
Ghirlandaio 'The baptism of Christ' Tornabuoni Chapel

God the father and the holy spirit give their blessing to this baptism. Besides Christ, others are baptized as well. For example, the kneeling man next to John loosens his right shoe and the left figure at the back is already undressed: ready to be baptized. For this nude figure, Ghirlandaio must have taken inspiration from Masaccio’s work in the Brancacci Chapel. At his baptism, Masaccio painted a similar nude figure that was greatly admired because it clearly had the chills.158

The story of John ends in the lunette with Herod’s banquet. The events at Herod’s birthday banquet, are described by the evangelist Marcus as follows: “The daughter of Herodias came in to dance for Herod and his guests, which was very much to their liking. The king said to the girl: ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ And he swore to her: ‘Whatever you ask, I will give it to you, even if it is half my kingdom! She went to her mother and asked, ‘What shall I ask?’ Her mother said, ‘The head of John the Baptist. She rushed back inside, stepped straight up to the king and said to him, ‘I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter right now. Marcus 6: 22-26 (New Bible translation 2004)

Ghirlandaio ‘Herod’s Banquet’
Ghirlandaio ‘Herod’s Banquet’ fresco Tornabuoni Chapel

Ghirlandaio portrays the moment in the story when John’s head lies on a platter and is offered to Herod. Much to the dismay of the king, as can be deduced from his face and hands. Ghirlandaio does not respect the contract. It was agreed that he would not only paint the banquet, but also the beheading itself.159 On the left behind the table, musicians play while Salome dances in the foreground. Not everyone seems aware of the horrible gift presented to Salome. The guests are wearing contemporary attire. The dwarf with his small staff acts as court jester. This was typical in Florence at the time of Ghirlandaio.

The festive meal is placed in an exuberantly decorated classic room. The painted barrel vaults with cassettes in the side aisles can be found in the basilica of Constantine at the Forum Romanum. The columns with their impost blocks are based on Brunelleschi’s columns in the San Lorenzo and the Santo Spirito. In addition to classical and contemporary architecture, Ghirlandaio also used the work of Fra Filippo Lippi. Between 1452 and 1466, Lippi also painted a Herod’s Banquet in Prato. The setting, the table with bowls, the fruit and a dancing Salome at the same time John’s head is being offered returns in Ghirlandaio’s fresco.

The groined vaults, the wall by the altar and the altarpiece

Tornabuoni Chapel

The top of the four sections of the groined vaults show the evangelists. The wall with the altar has three stained glass windows. At the bottom, Giovanni can be seen to the left of the window and his wife to the right. Above this on the right is John; painted in the desert with an Annunciation on the left. The wall ends with two stories from the life of Dominicus, which is an obvious choice in this main Dominican church. All the way up in the lunette is the Coronation of the Virgin.

Giovanni Tornabuoni           Francesca Pitti-Tornabuoni
Ghirlandaio Giovanni Tornabuoni fresco  Ghirlandaio   Francesca Pitti-Tornabuoni fresco

The rear wall has three stained glass windows designed by Ghirlandaio. They show events from the life of Mary and St. Dominic. The Assumption of Mary can be seen in the centre, all the way at the top (for more images of the windows, please see Wikipedia).

 Ghirlandaio ‘The Assumption of Mary’ rear wall
 Ghirlandaio 'The Assumption of Mary' rear wall Tornabuoni Chapel fresco
Stained glass windows
Tornabuoni Chapel Stained glass windows

Ghirlandaio also painted a large altarpiece. It is no longer in its original place, the Sassetti chapel. The altarpiece, a triptych, was dismantled in 1816. Part of the front side can now be seen in Munich (Alte Pinacotheek) and the verso, a Resurrection, in Berlin (see Wikipedia).

Ghirlandaio panel altarpiece 1490-1496 Alte Pinakothek Munich
Pala Tornabuoni     Possible reconstruction
Ghirlandaio panel altarpiece 1490-1496 Alte Pinakothek Munich

The opening of the Tornabuoni Chapel to the public

The chapel was painted between 1486 and 1490, much to the satisfaction of the Tornabuoni. Such an immense task was only possible if the artist had a large studio and the help of his brothers, brother-in-law, assistants and several pupils (in this case even the young Michelangelo). The Ricci family was not quite as satisfied. On the contrary, they were shocked when the chapel was opened to the public. According to them, Giovanni Tornabuoni had dishonored agreements on the family coat of arms when he had bought the rights for them.

‘And a fine jest it was at the opening of the chapel, for these Ricci looked for their arms with much ado, and finally, not being able to find them, went off to the Tribunal of Eight, contract in hand. Whereupon the Tornabuoni showed that these arms had been placed in the most conspicuous and most honourable part of the work; and although the others exclaimed that they were invisible, they were told that they were in the wrong, and that they must be content, since the Tornabuoni had caused them to be placed in so honourable a position as the neighbourhood of the most Holy Sacrament.’

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

Click here for the continuation of day 5