Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel II

The Tornabuoni Chapel      Bottom view      Zoom in      Stained -glass window

photos: Diego Delso, delso.photoSelim Huard; window: Diotime; view: Abrey82

Seven stories of the Virgin on the left wall

The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple

Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple detail

The story of the life of Mary starts, as soon as you enter the chapel, at the bottom of the wall on the left. Here the sacrifice that Mary’s father, Joachim, wanted to make is refused. He is expelled from the temple by the priest. Ghirlandaio depicts only one story from before Mary was born. So there is no Annunciation, which is unusual. Ghirlandaio probably used only one story of Mary’s mother and father because, according to the contract, Giovanni Tornabuoni originally wanted to start with Mary’s birth. Later on, he added the expulsion of Joachim from the temple. Presumably there was just no room for more stories of Joachim and Anna, because the other scenes were already determined. Ghirlandaio manages to niftily add a second story of Joachim and Anna: the Birth of Mary. Ghirlandaio does not depict two, but only one story within a single frame. It was common to show the Expulsion from the Temple and the Annunciation, just as Taddeo Gaddi had done in the Baroncelli Chapel. Ghirlandaio painted only one scene, in order not to affect the readability of the story. In this way, he adopted an efficient and clear method of storytelling that is strongly reminiscent of Giotto’s approach.

The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple

The opening scene, on the right wall in the story of John the Baptist, starts with the Annunciation: the angel visits Zechariah (below right when entering the main chapel). Both opposite frescoes, ‘The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ and ‘The Annunciation to Zechariah’, have quite a lot in common, such as a temple and its predominantly male spectators. The latter in contrast to ‘The Birth’ and ‘The Visitation’.

The Annunciation to Zacharias

Onlookers in Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to depict a Joachim’s Annunciation as a counterpart to Zechariah’s Annunciation? Certainly, however, it was common to start a cycle about the life of Mary with the expulsion from the temple. The fresco ‘The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ depicts four figures on the left. The old man with the red cap is Domenico’s teacher: Alesso Baldovinetti. Domenico is looking at you. To the far left, the man with a little red cap, is Domenico’s brother: David. The boy on the right, without headgear, is a pupil and brother-in-law of Domenico: Bastiano da San Gimignano (Sebastiano Mainardi). The attribution of Vasari to David and Domenico Ghirlandaio is generally accepted, but this does not apply to the old man, who is said to be Alesso Baldovinetti. This old man could also be Domenico’s father, Tomasso Bigordi. Moreover, the identification of the young man on the right without headgear is not undisputed either. Is he the son-in-law, Mainardi, or Domenico’s younger brother: Benedetto Ghirlandaio? Either way, it is certain that Domenico has portrayed himself surrounded by family.

Onlookers in Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple

Domenico and David are not depicted as passive spectators, which is very unusual. David raises his hand in response to the expulsion of Joachim. However, on the left, the other group of spectators is passive. The man in the left group watching the viewer is Lorenzo di Giovanni Tornabuoni, the son of the commissioner of the fresco cycle. It is for good reason that he is positioned at the bottom of the picture plane, close to the viewer. Moreover, this is the first fresco of the cycle of Mary’s life that the viewer sees when he enters the chapel. The folds of Lorenzo’s cloak underline the passive postures, in contrast to the cloaks of Domenico and David. The poses of Lorenzo and Domenico have much in common. Both seem to evoke the viewer to take a closer look at the story. A recommendation already made by Alberti in his book on painting.

According to the thesis by Cadogan, who wrote a monograph on Domenico Ghirlandaio, Domenico refers to his talent as a painter and Tornabuoni refers to the money he donated to this chapel. The Santa Maria Novella, a Dominican church, was the parish of Tornabuoni and Ghirlandaio. Domenico himself was named after Saint Dominic. If the above assumption is correct, then Domenico and his family put themselves on an equal footing with the patron.

Not only the depicted spectators in the scenes are contemporary and from Florence, this also applies to the architecture. A loggia has been painted in the background outside the temple, where the priest does accept someone else’s sacrifice. The medallions in the spandrels are reminiscent of the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Spedali, which is located opposite Santa Maria Novella. After Ghirlandaio had completed this fresco cycle, the Ospedale di San Paolo was built (1489-1498); the building you see as you leave the Santa Maria Novella.

Continuation Florence day 5: Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel III