The presentation of Mary and her engagement
On the bottom band are two episodes from the story of Mary. On the left it starts with the presentation of Mary. This fresco is the most famous work of Taddeo Gaddi.
It quickly became popular not only in Italy, but also north of the Alps. The composition can be found, for example, in Duc de Berry’s famous book of prayers, ‘Très Riches Heures’. Mary’s presentation also impressed Giovanni da Milano. This is clearly demonstrated in the Rinuccini chapel (chapel of the sacristy), not far from the Baroncelli chapel. In his work, Giovanni da Milano relies heavily on the presentation of Taddeo Gaddi. Browse Les Très Riches Heures
The daring way in which he painted the temple was completely novel for that time. Here, the student surpasses his teacher. This can be clearly seen in the presentation of Mary that Giotto painted some twenty years earlier in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The impressive building is placed diagonally on the picture plane. This creates an x-shape in which the priest forms the point where the two lines cross. There is no central axis along which the figures or the architecture are symmetrically arranged.
The effect of this composition is a strong dynamic and a large spatial effect. This is the first time that there is a story taking place in a room. As a viewer, you first look at the lunette where Joachim is driven out of the temple and then at the temple where the young Mary comes to make her sacrifice, and you see that Taddeo has taken the spectator’s angle of view into account. In this context, there is even talk of the first important step towards perspective as we can for the first time see around 1425 in the Trinity of Masaccio in Florence.
The number of stairs, three in total, each with five steps, reinforces the spatial effect, but is also based on the Legenda Aurea. Voragine writes about a temple with fifteen steps. The same number that the Van Limburg brothers painted in their presentation of Mary in the Très Riches Heures. Mary hesitates to continue her way to the priests in the temple. She looks back at her parents. In this drawing, Mary holds a book in her right hand.
In Taddeo’s ‘Presentation of Mary’ there is no peace and quiet as with the birth. It’s very lively with many figures. No less than twenty-three people have been painted. Everyone’s watching with excitement. One woman watches from her window. The three children in the lower right corner of the picture are very small in relation to the adults. They are reminiscent of the children Giotto painted in the Bardi chapel in the story of Francis who rejected the earthly goods. The boy who reaches out his hand and stands with his right foot on the first step, was painted in one part of the day. Despite his small stature, it was still a big challenge for the painter. The two kneeling women, who seem to come straight from an altarpiece, are probably the mothers of these children. Even the priest who waits for Mary with his arms outstretched, is far too small in relation to the other figures. Taddeo was likely struggling with the building where the priest is standing. This made it impossible for him to make the priest much bigger. Mary and Joseph are depicted in a very large way. Does this still reflect the old medieval tradition? In the Middle Ages it was customary to depict important figures such as saints larger than, for example, the patrons who are often depicted very small on an altarpiece. One glance at the altarpiece from the studio in this chapel illustrates this well. God who crowns Mary in the central panel and Mary are both much larger than the angels and saints.
In the last scene, to the right of the presentation of Mary in the temple, Taddeo painted the engagement of Mary. Research has shown that Taddeo painted this fresco earlier than Mary’s presentation. There is no spectacular spatial effect here. Rather, we see a rather shallow space with a wall that runs parallel to the picture plane while the persons are painted as if they were a frieze. In this limited space there are no less than twenty-six people. What makes this fresco by Taddeo so special is that he does not paint an obvious central composition as Perugino or Raphael would later do. Yet it is immediately clear what everything is all about: Mary.
Movement of the figures to the right leads the eye to Mary. Of course, she stands higher than her fiancée and the priest only has eyes for her. According to Ladis, who wrote a monograph and a catalogue raisonnè about Taddeo Gaddi, this fresco also depicts an old custom from that time, the so-called mattinata (Ladis, A., ‘Taddeo Gaddi Critical reappraisal and catalogue raissonné’, University of Missouri Press, Columbia 1982 28-29).
Three days before and after the wedding, a noisy crowd of musical instruments and singing would be the undesired entourage to a couple wanting to get married. This entourage would persist even in church and of course at night. This only happened with weddings that were not seen as a real marriage. With Joseph and Mary, it’s not just the big age difference. The virginity of Mary, which she also kept after the wedding, meant that such a marriage was not taken seriously. Trumpet sound, bagpipes and organ sounds would haunt such a couple. These are exactly the instruments that we see in the fresco at the wedding of Joseph and Mary. A couple chased by the mattinata with noisy music and all kinds of mocking remarks could only end this in one way: with money. Taddeo represented this light jest in an inventive way. According to the story, the fiancée of Mary was indicated by a branch that blossomed spontaneously.
A couple chased by the mattinata with noisy music and all kinds of mocking remarks could only end this in one way: with money. Taddeo represented this light jest in an inventive way. According to the story, the fiancée of Mary was indicated by a branch that blossomed spontaneously.
A dove above the blossoming branch emphasizes this divine intervention even more. Behind Joseph’s back, a number of men who were not chosen are arguing. In the foreground, a man angrily breaks a branch under his foot. Next to him comes a young man with a twig that is somewhat out of proportion. He hasn’t yet figured out he’s late. The man next to Joseph puts his hand on his back as if he could use his support. On the right, women comment on this marriage, as do the two children before them. You can also hear the noise and commentary of the crowd and the sounds of the musical instruments. Music and singing also play an important role on the altarpiece in the Coronation of Mary.