Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel IV (Santa Trinita)

3.3 The Sultan and the Ordeal by Fire

Here, just like in the opposite lunette, Ghirlandaio makes use of the cycle that Giotto painted around 1325 about Francis in the Bardi Chapel (Santa Croce). According to the legend, Francis tried to convince the Sultan, Al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt, that not Islam but Christianity is the only true religion. The ordeal by fire, which is taken barefoot, will provide the proof. Francis is already prepared to walk through the fire.

Giotto ‘Trail by Fire before the sultan’ 1319 – 1328

In the center, the sultan sits on his throne. The legs of the throne are harpies, which are malevolent hybrid creatures with the body of a woman and the head of a bird. Harpies symbolize the pernicious pagan faith.

Ghirlandaio ‘Test of Fire before the Sultan’ 1482-85

Like Giotto and later Masaccio, Ghirlandaio tells the story in an extremely effective manner through body postures, gestures, and glances. Two advisors sit on the steps of the podium. One of them makes a dismissive gesture with his hand, reacting to an indication from his lord Al-Malik.

The sultan leans like a true ruler with his left hand on his thigh, while his other hand points to Francis. The sultan’s gaze is directed at the Muslims, who are turning away and trying to leave. The figure with his back to the viewer points with his finger to the fire, indicating to the Muslims that the ordeal by fire is to be held. The man on the far left, in contemporary clothing and likely a portrait, restrains the Muslims. The adjacent fresco, the confirmation of the order’s rules, is by the master’s own hand, which is not the case with the ordeal by fire. Some parts are of lesser quality in terms of painting. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s assistant, Sebastiano Mainardi, likely painted the face of the advisor.

The composition of Ghirlandaio heavily relies on the work of Giotto with the same subject.

The division into two groups: Christians on the right and Muslims on the left, the throne in the middle, and the posture of the sultan and Francis. Ghirlandaio introduces a figure with his back to the viewer, connecting the Muslims with the fire and Francis. In Giotto’s work, the figures are depicted in a way that resembles a relief. Ghirlandaio creates significantly more depth by arranging the figures in a circular formation in his composition. Additionally, he opens up the interior with glimpses on both sides of the throne, offering views of a landscape. The lines of the floor tiles also contribute to a great sense of depth.

3.4 Francis Receives the Stigmata

“On May 8, 1213, Count Orlando of Chiusi gave this mountain to Francis. There he could retreat, as the place was particularly suitable for prayer and contemplation. Around September 14, 1224, Francis received the stigmata here.” Thus says a text on the site of the Franciscans for spiritual development.

Ghirlandiao ‘Francis Receives the Stigmata’ 1483 -1485

Web Gallery of Art

Christ on the Cross and wings of seraphims

Francis kneels in the grass, his arms and hands outstretched. His head is directed toward a phenomenon in the sky. He looks as if he is completely overwhelmed by a higher power. Christ is seen in the firmament. He is not hanging on a cross, but appears as a crucified figure on the wings of seraphim. Christ is depicted in a mandorla and surrounded by cherubim. The rays that inflict the wounds on Francis are painted by Ghirlandaio with thin golden lines. According to the Legenda Aurea, the following happened to Francis: ‘He entered a church of Saint Damian to pray. A figure of Christ spoke to him there in a miraculous way:

“Francis, go and rebuild My house, which, as you see, is completely in ruins.” Cited and translated from: Jacobus de Voragine De Hand van God De mooiste Heiligenlevens uit de Legenda Aurea, Athaneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 blz. 242.

From that moment, his soul was tender and compassion for the crucified Christ was miraculously and deeply embedded in his heart.

Naturally, our saint ensured that the house of the Lord was rebuilt. For Francis, the stigmata were the pinnacle of his life. He wanted nothing more than to live like Christ, and now he underwent the most significant event in Christ’s life. Dante Alighieri also interpreted the stigmata as the final and highest achievement in Francis’s life. In his verses Paradiso XI, 106-108 (can be read here) from the Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia), the poet glorifies the stigmata. With this, God Himself confirmed the Franciscan order’s rules.”

Brother Leo

The Franciscan monk who sits half-kneeling on the ground before Francis is Brother Leo. Francis has written a blessing for him, and Brother Leo witnesses the stigmata that Francis receives. He is in tense anticipation, which is evident from the hand on his head and his strained expression. Behind Francis and to the right in the foreground, a deer is depicted in difficult perspective foreshortening. Next to this deer lies its doe, which presses itself anxiously against the ground with its legs tucked in.


The three riders in the water behind the deer are also looking at the phenomenon in the sky. In the middle, between and behind Francis and Brother Leo, stand two Franciscans, one of whom is looking at the sky. On the high rising rock, La Verna, we see the monastery founded by Francis. Two figures stand by a cave from which a small stream flows. A steep path winding through the landscape leads to the monastery on the mountain. The stigmata occurred at La Verna (Arezzo), but in the background to the right, Pisa is depicted. This was likely done because the Arno river rises near La Verna and flows into the sea at Pisa.

La Verna in 2011

photo:: Mattana and National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.

Ghirlandaio La Verna

Everyday life in the city continues as usual. Women wash clothes on the peninsula near the bridge and bleach their laundry on the grass. Passersby walk over the bridge, horse riders are on their way to Pisa, and ships dock at the quay near the city gate. The landscape is painted quite realistically. A few years earlier, the sculptor Benedetto Maiano also depicted La Verna as a realistic landscape in the pulpit of Santa Croce. Ghirlandaio clearly drew inspiration from Maiano’s relief.

Zoom out

The stigmatization is not just a landscape with figures, animals, and a city, but the deer with its doe seems to be painted solely to create better balance in the composition. This setup directs the viewer’s attention primarily to Francis. However, the deer also has an important symbolic function. The Physiologus (can be read here Gutenberg) and the later Bestiary (can be read here Gutenberg) begin the description of deer with the good qualities of this animal and cite Psalm 42:2 by King and Prophet David:

As the deer
pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants
for you, my God

Ghirlandaio paints the newly emerging antlers, which symbolize the rebirth of Christ after his entombment. In the sky, a bird of prey, a hawk, chases a pheasant. The evil, represented by the pheasant, is defeated, symbolizing the victory of Christ as he comes back to life after his crucifixion and entombment.

In the adjacent fresco on the wall of the altar, there is also a dead person coming back to life, but now through a miracle performed by Francis.

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