Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel VI (Santa Trinita)

4. The Altarpiece and the Painted Niches with Francesco and Nera

In the altarpiece, the prophecy of David, Tibur, and the sibyls in the vaults is fulfilled: the Savior is born. The altarpiece was painted in 1485. This year is inscribed on the impost block of the pillar in Roman numerals: MCCCCLXXXV. This is also the year that Ghirlandaio completed his work in the chapel. From January 1, 1486, mass was regularly held in the chapel. The inscription on the frieze of the frame reads: IPSVM QVEM GENIT ADORAVIT MARIA, which translates to: Mary prays to the one she has given birth to.

Ghirlandaio ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’      Zoom in

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Shepherds'  Sassetti chapel

Mary has the features of a young woman and appears almost like a girl. The broken roof of the simple stable is covered with straw. The stable is supported by two classical fluted pillars. On the right foreground are the shepherds, one of whom is pointing at the child.

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Shepherds'  detail: Child
photos: jean louis mazieres

Mary and her Child

The Christ child lies on Mary’s cloak with straw underneath. He appears to be kicking his feet and holding his thumb near his mouth. In the left foreground, a saddle, a water jug, and a cloth bag are painted. On the tile next to the bricks at the bottom center of the image is a goldfinch. In the background, there is a landscape with hills, a river, two bridges spanning the water, boats, people on horseback and on foot, and women doing laundry, similar to the stigmatization of Francis. Additionally, two cities are depicted: Jerusalem on the right and Rome in the center above Joseph’s head. The Dome of the Rock is clearly visible in the idealized Jerusalem. Rome is recognizable by Hadrian’s Mausoleum and the Torre delle Milizie. The mausoleum is painted according to an archaeological map of Rome from the fifteenth century.

High on the left in the picture plane, the background and the central theme, the birth of the Christ child, are connected. On the mountain where the shepherds are with their flock of sheep, an angel announces the birth of Christ. On the narrow path winding down from the heights, the procession of the three kings is on its way to the Christ child. A star by the thatched roof of the stable guides their way.

Shepherds heads

Vasari dedicates the following praiseworthy words to the altarpiece:
“To this whole he added a panel, also by his hand and done in tempera: it includes a Nativity of Christ that will astonish every art connoisseur, and he portrayed himself in it and painted a few shepherds’ heads that are found to be divine.” Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam 1990 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568) deel I Leven van Domenico Ghirlandaio blz. 248

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Shepherds'  detail:Shepherds

The shepherd pointing his finger at the Christ child is not, as Vasari writes, a self-portrait of Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Hugo van der Goes ‘The Portinari Triptych’      Central panel       Shepherds

Hugo van der Goes ‘The Portinari Triptych’
Uffizi, Florence and Wikipedia

The ‘few shepherds’ heads that are found to be divine’ are inspired by the altarpiece that the merchant Tomasso Portinari had commissioned from the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, from Bruges. This large altarpiece, a triptych, arrived in Florence in May 1483 and made a deep impression on the artists. The northern realism of the three shepherds by Hugo van der Goes clearly influenced the way Ghirlandaio painted his shepherds.

The shape of a triptych is found in the lower part of the altarpiece. Van der Goes painted Portinari and his wife, as was customary at the time, on the two side panels significantly smaller than the other figures. The damaged inscription under the portrait of Nera d’ Corsi reads: A(NNO) D (OMINI) M CCCCLXXX (V) (XX) V DECEMBRIS. It refers to the birth of Christ.

Ghirlandaio Nera d’Corsi Sassetti chapel

Nera d’Corsi        Francesco Sassatti

Ghirlandaio depicts Nera and Francesco in separate niches painted in perspective, life-sized. Their posture corresponds to that of Portinari and his wife. The humble posture of Francesco and Nera is emphasized by their simple clothing. Nera and Francesco are depicted in profile and have a timeless facial expression. They likely long and hope for redemption and a favorable outcome of the Last Judgment.

On the manger, a sarcophagus, the following inscription can be read above the garland: ENSE CADENS SOLY MO POMPEI FVLVI[VS] / AVGVR / NVMEN AIT QVAE ME CONTEG[IT] / VRNA DABIT, freely translated as Fulvius, augur of Pompeius, who fell by the sword before Jerusalem, proclaimed: ‘My tomb will create a new God’. Fulvius died during the assault on Jerusalem.

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Shepherds' detail

On the triumphal arch it says: GN[AIVS] POMPEO MAGNO HIRCANVS POT.[IFEX] P[OSVIT], freely translated as The priest Hircanus erected [this triumphal arch] in honor of Gnaeus Pompeius the Great. Fonzio, Francesco’s friend, and Poliziano likely devised these texts. The inscriptions refer to the course of history as seen through Christian eyes. The old kingdom of the Jews was defeated by the Romans, the pagans. The pagan augur Fulvius predicts the coming of a new God, which is, of course, Christ. This heralds a golden age. Ghirlandaio painted the vision of Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl at the front of the chapel for a reason. She addressed Augustus with the words: ‘This child, emperor, is greater than you, therefore you must worship him.’ The predictions of the Sibyls in the ribbed vaults also come true in the altarpiece.

The stable with Christ, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds consists of two classical fluted columns supporting a damaged thatched roof. The following event is described in the Golden Legend:

“Pope Innocent II writes that there was twelve years of peace in the Roman Empire, during which the Romans built a magnificent temple of peace and placed columns of Romulus in it, asking Apollo how long the peace would last. He answered them: as long as a virgin gives birth to a child. When they heard this, they said, thus peace will last forever, for it is impossible for a virgin to give birth, and they wrote above the temple door: Eternal Temple of Peace. But on the night that Christ was born, the temple collapsed, and now a church stands there: the Santa Maria Nova [S. Francesca Romana].”
Legenda Aurea: Cited and translated from: Kecks, R.G., ‘Domenico Ghirlandaio und die Malerei der Florentiner Renaissance’, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz,-Munchen; Berlin: Dt. Kunstverl., 2000 275 (left column).

In the time of the Sassetti family, the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum was considered the Temple of Peace. The two columns that Ghirlandaio painted are the remnants of this temple of peace. The columns testify to the decline of the pagan era while the child announces the new golden (Christian) age. Not only the inscriptions refer to the course of history, from Jewish, pagan to Christian, but also the landscape.

San Francesco Romana       Basilica of Maxentius

San Francesco Romana  chiesa
photos: Daderot and Maxentius: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

It should be repeated here: on the right in the background, Jerusalem is depicted. The Dome of the Rock is shown in the center of the idealized Jerusalem. Above Joseph’s head is Rome, with Hadrian’s Mausoleum and the Torre delle Milizie clearly recognizable. In the fifteenth century, it was believed that the tower was part of an imperial palace. According to a legend, the tomb of Augustus was located under this palace.

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Shepherds'  detail: Kings

Three kings are on their way to the Christ child

Before and between the Jewish and pagan realms, symbolized by Jerusalem and Rome, the new Christian realm is found in a simple stable. Here we are reminded again of the words Tibur spoke to Emperor Augustus: ‘This child, emperor, is greater than you, therefore you must worship him.’ The three kings are on their way to the Christ child, passing under the triumphal arch, thereby leaving the pagan realm. The Jewish shepherds are already at the child to honor him. Besides the theme of the course of history, which ends with the golden age of Christianity, there are more allusions and symbols in the panel.

The gifts the shepherds bring symbolize the incarnation of Christ, his sacrificial death, and the virginity of Mary. The lamb the shepherd carries in his arms is the Lamb of God. It refers to ‘Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi’ or ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,’ but also to Christ as a shepherd. The ostrich egg in the basket of the shepherd with folded hands represents Mary’s virginity and the resurrection. The resurrection was based on the Physiologus:

“A book about nature and especially about animals, probably written shortly before the year 200 in Alexandria by a ‘student of nature’ (physiologos in Greek). The Physiologus tells age-old facts about familiar animals like the lion, the hedgehog, the fox, and the beaver, but also about mythical creatures like the phoenix and the unicorn. The biological facts are always explained symbolically and especially in a Christian sense. The Physiologus lays the foundation for the Bestiary [click here to read the Bestiary], which was very popular in the Middle Ages.” Cited and translated from: Hans Brandhorst uit: Physiologus Handbibliotheek KB Den Haag

In the Physiologus, the ostrich is attributed with the characteristic that it hatches its eggs in a special way. By looking at them very intently, the eggs became warm and hatched. In the Christian interpretation, this was seen as a symbol of Mary’s virginity and the resurrection. Thus, the faithful were also urged to keep their eyes firmly on God during prayer if they wanted their sins forgiven.

The tile and bricks in the foreground are allusions to the names of Francesco Sassetti and his wife Nera d’Corsi. As mentioned earlier, the words: sasso, sassetti, and sasseto mean stone, small stones, and throwing stones. It is also a reference to Nera d’Corsi’s surname. Bricks are laid in courses (=corsi). The stones are also depicted in medallions in the stone frames around the niches with the tombs of Francesco and his wife Nera d’Corsi.

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Shepherds'  detail

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