The art of painting in the Santa Croce 4/6

Taddeo Gaddi in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce 2/2

Click here for an overview of the Santa Croce: architecture, sculpture and painting.

The wall at the altar

Baroncelli Chapel altar wall
Taddeo Gaddi Baroncelli kapel altaarwand

picture: jean louis mazieres

The south wall has a lancet in the middle and to the right and to the left of it the fresco cycle continues detailing Mary’s life. Because of the limited space, these frescoes are smaller. Moreover, this is a subdued, or even supernatural, magical atmosphere. There is a stark difference with the rowdy marriage of Mary and Joseph. To the left of the stained-glass window are three annunciations: Mary, the shepherds and the three kings. On the right are the earthly reactions to these annunciations, such as Mary’s visit to her cousin, the worship by the shepherds and that of the three kings. The story of Mary also begins on this wall at the top of the lunette.

 Altar wall windows
Taddeo Gaddi Baroncelli chapel altar wall windows

Annunciation of Mary and Mary’s visit to Elisabeth

Mary is shown twice in the lunette. First at the annunciation and on the right she visits her old cousin Elisabeth. The humility of Mary is emphasized by her austere clothing and the fact that she sits on the floor. The book now appears to float in the air, but that’s because parts of the original paint have disappeared. The angel falls from the sky like a meteorite and goes straight for his target. This announcement is not, as usual, accompanied by a pigeon, a white lily, or God the Father. However, there is a remarkable supernatural light. Taddeo must have read carefully what was written about the announcement in Luke 1:35 and in the Legend of Aurea. On the question of Mary to the angel how she will become pregnant, it is written:

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. A shadow is formed by the light that will fall on your body. The Virgin, as a human being, could not comprehend the fullness of the Divine; but the power of the Most High overshadowed her, while the immaterial light of His Divinity gave birth to a human body within her, and so she could give birth to a God.’54

In this case, the human body is only represented by light. The white lily may not be visible in the fresco, but it can be seen in the decoration motifs around and inside the Gothic lancet window. According to Lucas, Mary went to Elisabeth immediately after the annunciation. Opposite the Annunciation on the other side of the window we see how Mary meets Elisabeth.

Mary meets Elisabeth
Taddeo Gaddi 'Mary meets Elisabeth' Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce

Despite her advanced age, Elisabeth was pregnant with a son. This son is John the Baptist, who would baptize Christ. Mary stayed to help her cousin for three months. This fits well with the views of the Franciscans. After all, charity is central to this order. In the upper part of the stained-glass window between the Annunciation and Mary’s visit to Elisabeth we see Francis receiving the marks of the cross from the angel in the adjoining window.

Taddeo Gaddi Altar Wall Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce

Annunciation to the shepherds and the worship of the Christ Child

Directly under the lunette on both sides of the window we see an Annunciation and a Worship. Having a separate scene for the annunciation to the shepherds is very rare in the trecento (fourteenth century). In this nocturnal scene, we observe a very special, almost mystical light, surrounding the angel. The landscape, the animals and the shepherds get an unnatural tint. There is no shadow. Luke mentions in his gospel that the shepherds were surrounded by a shining light that shocked them greatly (Luke 2: 9). The dog looks frightened and barks. However, most animals do not know what is going on above their heads, they are still asleep. Only one of the two shepherds is looking up with his outstretched right arm. It seems as if his hand is shielding his eyes from the light radiated by the angel. This light and this nocturnal scene sets Taddeo apart from his teacher Giotto. As he had already done with the temple in the presentation of Mary (eastern wall) with a depth effect unprecedented for that time. In these two respects, Taddeo Gaddi surpasses the ‘father of painting’: Giotto. A strange cut-off of the two sheep and the angle of the slope that slopes to the right quickly leads the viewer’s eye to the opposite fresco. The story continues here, because after the Annunciation the shepherds went in search of the newborn child of Christ.

This fresco lacks an open composition. Just a world that only refers to itself. The plaster on the right of and above the shepherd’s head appears to be a scaffolding pole. The later applied paint, a secco, is peeled off. Here too, as in the lunette at the Annunciation, Mary sits on the ground. This shows her humility. This is the only fresco in the entire cycle where Mary is looking at the churchgoer in the chapel.

Taddeo Gaddi 'Annunciation to the shepherds' detail Baroncelli Chapel Santa croce

picture: jean louis mazieres

Adoration of the Magi and the worship

This subject is extremely rare in the late Middle Ages in Italy. Moreover, it is the first time that the star has the shape of a Christ child.55 The inspiration for this work comes directly from the Legend of Aurea. In the inner arch, in the middle, right at the entrance, the prophet Baladan points to the stars. Voragine cites the Greek theologian John Chrysostom, who in turn refers to the prophecy of Baladan.

Announcement to three kings
Taddeo Gaddi 'Announcement to three kings' detail Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce

According to the Greek church father, the three were actually astrologers who spent three days of each month on a mountain from generation to generation, waiting for the star Baladan had predicted. Taddeo did indeed paint a mountain with three figures on it.

Adoration of the Magi detail
Taddeo Gaddi 'Adoration of the Magi' detail Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce

Unfortunately this fresco is badly damaged, much of the original paint is gone. This is due to the fact that a large part was applied a secco. Here too, as with the annunciation to the shepherds, the slope runs down to the right so that you can quickly look at the opposite fresco. This is where the story continues. After seeing the star, the three kings go in search of the newly born child. In the adoration of the magi, Mary now sits on a precious throne. In this fresco it is Joseph who exudes humility. He sits on the ground next to the throne. Above the building the star appears again in the form of a Christ Child. A horse looks at this remarkable phenomenon at the firmament.

David and Jesse in the pilaster by the south wall

In two painted Gothic niches we see Jesse with a blossoming staff and David with Goliath’s head in his hands.56 It looks like a painted version of the niches with statues at the Orsanmichele. Jesse used to be mistaken for Joseph before the inscription with his name was discovered. Jesse is looking at the believers in the chapel.

David detail
Taddeo Gaddi 'David Goliath' Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce

Taddeo Gaddi David Goliath Baroncelli Chapel

To the left of Jesse is the birth of Christ. Although the blossoming bud of the staff held by Jesse differs from Joseph’s (east wall), there is still a visual link between Jesse and Joseph. There is also a clear connection between Jesse and the Virgin with Child. In Isaiah 11:1 it says: ‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’ Jesse is David’s father. Out of his body grows a tree, symbolizing the pedigree of Christ.

Jesse’s son is painted underneath him. Around 1330, the dating of the work in the Baroncelli chapel is quite controversial, a David can already be seen. This figure would become extremely popular in Florence as mentioned in the story of sculpture. David stands on Goliath’s body. He carries Goliath’s severed head in his hand. This painted David must have had a great influence on sculptors like Verrocchio and Donatello. During the restoration it was discovered that Taddeo had moved the pouch of the sling to make it stand out.57 Why is the hero David depicted as a knight? According to Janson-La Palme, all this has to do with the Baroncelli’s clients. Two brothers of Bartolo Baroncelli, Bivigliano and Salvestro, were knighted in 1331.58

The apotheosis: the altarpiece Coronation of the Virgin

Although the panel is signed with OPUS MAGISTRI IOCTI, it is not made by Giotto himself, but comes from his studio.59 WIt was probably designed by the master himself. After a thorough investigation, Janson-La Palme was able to establish that Taddeo did not paint it either.60

Coronation of The Virgin
 Taddeo Gaddi Altar piece Coronation of The Virgin Baroncelli Chapel

Unfortunately it is not certain whether the altarpiece was actually in the Baroncelli chapel in the trecento. What we do know is that the frame of the polyptych has changed. The Fine Arts Museum in San Diego houses the upper triangular part of the original altarpiece, which has been removed due to the later applied cornice. In the ‘pinnacle’ (San Diego) it is clearly visible that the divine light also plays an important role here, just like in the fresco with the lancet. Christ appears in a Gothic four-pass with an open book with the text: Alpha and Omega. This refers to the revelation to John where the following can be read: ” There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. … They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light”. (Revelation 22: 5) The six angels below him who look up to their Heavenly Father shield their eyes from the bright light. Three do this with their hands like one shepherd at the Annunciation. The other two angels closest to God the Father even use lenses to protect their eyes. This subject from the revelation to John is extremely rare and this theme of divine light, as already described, is also elaborated by Taddeo in the frescoes around the lancet window.

Original part of the altarpiece
Original part of the altarpiece Baroncelli Chapel Taddeo Gaddi?

Of course, the five panels now lack mattinata with noisy music and mocking remarks as we’ve seen in the marriage of Mary and Joseph (east wall). It has music and song to worship Mary, while she is crowned by the Lord.

altaarstuk detail Kroning van Maria Baroncelli kapel Santa Croce Florence

The predella has hexagons from left to right, depicting: Onofrius (or the prophet Elias), John the Baptist, Christ as the man of sorrows in the middle, Francis and Zenobius (?)
The hexagons return in the frames that Gaddi painted around the lancet.

Christ as a man of sorrows
Taddeo Gaddi Altar piece Coronation of The Virgin detail predella: Christ as a man of Sorrows Baroncelli Chapel

According to art historian Julian Gardner, there are two places from where you can see the chapel.61 One spot is if you stand a few steps below the chapel in the nave. The second place is when you are under the entrance arch (click here for the diagram of Gardner). When you’re in the nave, you’ll see the back wall with the altar as it’s meant to be. At the second spot, you can also clearly see the adjacent space. The frescoes on the ceiling are by Taddeo Gaddi, but the mural (west wall) in this adjoining room was painted by Sebastiano Mainardi in 1495 after a design by Ghirlandaio. Originally there was a fence in front of the chapel, similar to the one still standing at the Cappella Rinuccini.

Baroncelli kapel Santa Croce

The outer wall of the chapel also has frescoes. Michelozzo di Bartolommeo made a new passage to the sacristy, as a result of which a large part of the fresco of Christ among the scribes has vanished. This New Testament story was likely chosen because the Franciscans attach great importance to their studium generale. In the study center at the monastery of Santa Croce, the novices of Franciscans from all over Italy have been trained since Saint Bonaventura.62

Baroncelli Chapel  and a detail
Baroncelli kapel S. Croce Taddeo Gaddi

picture: jean louis mazieres

To the right of the entrance is the grave of the Baroncelli family. Not only the wealthy Baroncelli family commissioned Taddeo, but also the Franciscans of Santa Croce. There is another crucifixion painted by Taddeo in the sacristy. Gaddi also painted one wall in the refectory. It is now a museum located on the courtyard where the famous Pazzi Chapel of Brunelleschi is also located.

Click here for the continuation of day 5