Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel II (Santa Trinita)

2.1. Front: the vision of Augustus with the Sibyl Tibur and David

On the outer and front side of the chapel, David is depicted standing on a column with an impost block on the left, and in the center are the Sibyl Tibur and Emperor Augustus. Both frescoes are heavily damaged. Little remains of the ‘particularly charming and joyful colors’ that Vasari wrote about.

The Sibyl Tibur and Emperor Augustus zoom out       In situ

Ghirlandaio 'Sibyl Tibur and Emperor Augustus' Sassetti
photo: Sailko

The story that Ghirlandaio paints about the vision of Augustus and the Sibyl Tibur is based on the Legenda Aurea. The Roman senators wanted to proclaim their emperor Augustus as a god. Exactly on the day the Christ child was born, the emperor’s council gathered for this purpose. The Sibyl Tibur points, just before the council meeting, to the sun surrounded by a golden ring. In the middle of the sun sits a beautiful virgin with a child on her lap. Emperor Augustus observed all this with amazement and heard a voice that said, ‘This is the altar of heaven.’ Tibur spoke to Augustus: ‘This child, emperor, is greater than you, therefore you must worship him.’ This legend had further consequences for a church in Rome, because:

“In the fourteenth century, the Santa Maria de Capitolo was renamed: Santa Maria in Aracoeli. This was due to the legend that Emperor Augustus had an Ara Coeli (altar of heaven) built on this site after the coming of Christ was foretold to him. The Ara Coeli can now be seen under the octagonal chapel where the urn containing the ashes of Emperor Constantine’s mother is kept. Emperor Augustus and Mary can be admired on the arch above the high altar (Maria in Aracoeli) because of the legend.” Source: Wikipedia.

Ghirlandaio 'Emperor Augustus' Sassetti

Ghirlandaio did not paint Mary with the child, but the monogram of Christ: IHS in a radiant sun. On the facade of Santa Trinita, until the sixteenth century, there was a coat of arms with the same monogram, a sign that Bernardinus of Siena had devised. The Sibyl points to the sky where a golden disc with twelve flaming rays around the monogram of Christ is visible. Augustus looks on in tense anticipation of what will happen with the phenomenon in the sky. He holds his hand to his forehead, a gesture often seen in visions: the so-called aposkopein (hand gestures). Between and behind the two groups, the city of Rome is depicted. The place where the vision supposedly took place is the Capitoline Hill, where the main church of the Franciscans, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, also stands. The Pantheon, the Column of Antoninus, and the atrium of the old St. Peter’s are clearly recognizable.

David in situ

To the left of the vision, David is painted. Due to the large column and the low-angle view, it strongly resembles an important commemorative or ceremonial monument. You can see not only the front but also the side, which enhances the impression of a real monument. On the pedestal of David, it says:


In honor of the homeland and for the glory of Christianity, by decree of the Senate and the people.

Ghirlandaio 'David' Sassetti
photos: Sailko
Ghirlandaio ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds' detail Jesus

Ghirlandaio ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ 1485

As the inscription suggests, David stands up for the people. In Florence, this was a long-standing tradition where David represented a warrior and defender of civil liberties. Taddeo Gaddi depicted David around 1340 in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce. Andrea del Castagno 1470 (National Gallery of Art) and Antonio del Pollaiuolo 1470 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) also painted a David. Furthermore, sculptors such as Donatello 1440 and Verrocchio (1473-1475) created statues of David. Donatello even made two: one in marble (1409) and the other in bronze (1430). The most famous David was carved about 18 years after Ghirlandaio’s work in the Sassetti Chapel by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Besides being a warrior and defender, David was also a prophet. In Acts, chapter II, verses 29-32, it is written that he foretold the coming of the Messiah. With the birth of Christ, as depicted by Ghirlandaio in his altarpiece, David’s prophecy also comes true. Francesco Sassetti would have looked with pleasure at the coat of arms that David holds. In the relief with the family coat of arms hanging under the vision of Augustus, small stones and a sling can be seen. The sling and stones of David are a pun on the Sassetti family name. The words sasso, sassetti, and sasseto mean stone, small stones, and throwing stones. The sling and stones of David are also depicted in medallions in the stone frames around the niches with the tombs of Francesco and his wife Nera.

In the hymn, Dies Irae or Day of Wrath, from the thirteenth century by Thomas von Celano, it is clear that David not only predicted the coming of Christ but also the Day of Judgment. The dark and threatening text of this hymn was sung every first Sunday of Advent during the lifetime of Francesco Sassetti. After this hymn, Luke 21:6 was recited. The first stanza of the Day of Wrath is as follows:

Day of wrath, oh that day
will dissolve the world in ashes
as foretold by David and the Sibyl
What dread there will be
when the judge shall come
to strictly judge everything

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