Ghirlandaio and Botticelli: Jerome and Augustine II (Ognissanti V)

Ghirlandaio ‘Jerome’

Ghirlandaio 'Jerome'  detail: face fresco

But the frescoes are more than portraits of two holy scholarly church fathers in their studies. The original text with Jerome and the clock behind Augustine are the keys to the deeper meaning. The two paintings by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio can only be understood when they are considered in relation to each other.

Botticelli ‘Augustine’

Botticelli 'Augustine' detail: Face.   fresco

On the frieze with Jerome, it says: “Enlighten us, you radiant light, without which the earth would remain in darkness.” This text is based on the first line of a hymn by Johannes Andreae in his “Hieronymianus” (which can be read here). This work was widely disseminated at that time. In the “Hieronymianus” are also the apocryphal letters of Augustine.

The clock

The content of these letters is the basis for an important legend about the two church fathers. The letters describe Augustine’s first vision, which he had in the last hour before the full setting of the sun. Unaware that Jerome had died in Bethlehem, Augustine was meditating in his cell in Hippo on the bliss of the saints who unite with Christ after their death. Augustine decided to write a letter to Jerome asking how he viewed this bliss. At that very moment, his cell was flooded with light, and Jerome’s voice spoke: it is impossible to imagine or experience this joy of the saints; it is granted to you only after your death. The light mentioned in the text on the frieze is reflected in the fresco. The light in the vision that Botticelli paints comes from the left, but no shadow falls on the wall. In Ghirlandaio’s work, the light falls from the right, but here a cast shadow is painted behind Jerome. Augustine not only saw a radiant light but also smelled the fragrance and heard Jerome’s voice. This explains his slightly raised head, his gaze, his furrowed brows, the gesture of his right hand, and the light that falls on this church father and the wall behind him. The hands of the clock, which are visible in the full light, point to between twenty-four and one hour. This clock does not indicate the hours of the day as ours does but the hours before sunset. Thus, the hand on this clock indicates the last hour before the setting of the sun. This is precisely the time when Augustine had his vision.

Botticelli 'Augustine in his Study'' detail: Clock

For the ordinary believer, the deeper meaning was not understandable, but for the monks, who were the only ones allowed through the door of the choir screen, the message was clear. About twenty years later, the Venetian painter Carpaccio would paint the same subject, but this time depicting only Augustine in his study. (Want to read more about this? Click here and scroll down).

Carpaccio ‘St. Augustine in his Study’      In situ       Preparatory sketch

Carpaccio 'St. Augustine in his Study

Botticelli and Ghirlandaio paint the studies with great attention and love for detail. This manner of painting is characteristic of Northern art. Ghirlandaio is clearly influenced by a panel by Jan van Eyck that the Medici owned. An inventory from 1456-1462 describes this work as follows: “A small Flemish panel, with Saint Jerome in his study, with a small cabinet with many books in perspective and a lion at his feet, the work of Master Jan of Bruges.” Cadogan, J.K., ‘Domenico Ghirlandaio Artist and Artisan’, Yale University Press/ New Haven, London 2000 p. 216

Jan van Eyck ‘Saint Jerome in His Study’ c. 1435

Jan van Eyck ‘Saint Jerome in His Study’
Institute of Art,  Detroit

The painting of Saint Jerome in the Detroit Institute of Arts is likely the ‘small Flemish panel’ described in the inventory. Ghirlandaio adopts Jerome’s posture as well as some details, including an hourglass, a bookshelf, and carafes. Ghirlandaio also paid great attention to details. In Van Eyck’s work, the light comes from the left and the church father is reading. In Ghirlandaio’s work, the light comes from the right and Jerome is lost in thought while writing. Ghirlandaio omits the lion, the usual attribute for this church father. The way Ghirlandaio depicts the books is connected to Botticelli’s pendant. Ghirlandaio and Botticelli are trying to surpass the Northern painters on their own ground: the love for rendering naturalistic details. For instance, Ghirlandaio paints a book on the writing desk with a partially open green cover and a double-folded page. It is clear that the church father has read this page and probably found it very important. Additionally, Ghirlandaio paints two small tubes: one with black ink and the other with red ink.

Ghirlandaio 'Jerome in his study' detail: black and white ink
photo Jerome: jean louis mazieres; zoom dvdbramhall

Black and red ink     Jerome     Zoom out

Black was used for writing and red for rubricating. Ghirlandaio’s emulation with the northerners goes so far as to oppose the prevailing idea of idealization. Thus, small black and red ink splatters are painted on the wood around the ink pots. Drops of candle wax are depicted next to the candle. In the wood of the writing desk, the year is represented in Roman numerals: MCCCCLXXX (1480).

Furthermore, next to the prayer beads, there is a sand sprinkler to dry the ink. The eyeglasses, the ruler also speak to reading and writing: they are the tools of a scholar. On the top shelf: a cucumber, a gourd, and two ceramic pots, called albarelli, one of which bears a Christogram: IHS. These pots were used to store medicines. Next to the albarelli lies a round wooden box with a lid on which fruits are placed; this is a pyxis. Hosts were kept in it. According to the art historian Rice, this symbolizes Christ as the only true medicine. In addition to folios, a wax seal, and Venetian carafes filled with liquid, various fabrics are also painted, such as the green curtain, the red cardinal’s hat with its tassels, and the Oriental carpet on the writing desk. With this, the painter shows that he can paint everything. Also, in Botticelli, who, as Vasari suggests, began after Ghirlandaio’s fresco, many details are visible that are painted with great love and meticulousness.

Texts in Open book

Botticelli painted the following conversation between two monks in the open book next to the clock:
“Where is Brother Martin?””He just left.”
“And where did he go?”
“He has left the city through the Porta al Prato [city gate].”

Botticelli 'Augustine' in his study' detail: Text open book

Instead of following the path of Saint Augustine, this monk chooses his own pleasure and escapes the strict rules of the order. Botticelli was known as a prankster, at least that’s how Vasari describes him. Two years after the Last Supper and the Hieronymus in the Ognissanti, Ghirlandaio began a fresco cycle in 1482 commissioned by the Sassettis. This wealthy family had a chapel in the Santa Trinita close to the Ognissanti.

Santa Trinita

Santa Trinita chiesa Florence
photos: dvdbramhall and ctj71081

Continuation Florence day 6: Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel I (Santa Trinita)