Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel III

Storytellers

By comparing two works of art, ‘The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ from 1486 by Ghirlandaio and Gozzoli’s ‘Arrival of Saint Augustine in Milan’ from 1464 (Cadogan, J.K., ‘Domenico Ghirlandaio Artist and Artisan’, Yale University Press/ New Haven, London 2000). Cadogan demonstrates that Ghirlandaio is the superior artist in depicting a story.  There are rather striking differences between the ‘scene’ that both artists constructed for their figures and the story itself. Gozzoli created a simultaneous depiction in which Augustine can be seen three times: in the middle he arrives and he has just stepped off his horse. His servant helps him to take off his travelling clothes. Slightly to the right of the centre, in the loggia, Augustine kneels before Symmachus as the crowd watches.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ fresco 1464 Sant’Agostino

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ fresco 1464
Wikipedia

Lastly, on the far right, at the bottom of the picture plane, Augustine greets Ambrose. This last greeting occurs on the square in front of the loggia. The gallery resembles the Ospedale degli Innocenti quite a bit and is three bays wide and five deep. The vanishing point of the lines is below the centre of the picture plane. The horizontal axis is situated at about one third of the height of the vertical axis. This clearly marks the foreground, the centre and the background (rising towers). Augustine thus appears in three different places in as many episodes of the story.

Ghirlandaio ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’           Layout Mary left wall

Ghirlandaio ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ 

Ghirlandaio also painted a loggia as a background, but this one is placed exactly in the middle of the image plane. The bays have a flat ceiling and no cross vaults. Just like Gozzoli, Domenico used a central perspective. The horizontal line (eye level) is intersected by a vertical section, so that the vanishing point is near the priest’s elbow. The main action, the expulsion of Joachim from the temple, takes place at the front, slightly to the right of the middle. The second action is placed in the middle of the image plane, in the temple itself.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ detail

Figures and Architecture

The main difference between the work of Gozzoli and that of Domenico is the architecture. Ghirlandaio’s temple seems monumental, in contrast to Gozzoli’s. Its impressive effect is achieved by painting pillars instead of columns. In addition, the temple takes up a large part of the picture plane. In Gozzoli’s case, the proportions between the building and the people are remarkable. The people look like dwarfs compared to the temple. Because of the higher placed vanishing point Ghirlandaio uses, the figures fit the architecture much better.’

Augustine kneeling before Symmachus

Not only is the building more convincing, but Domenico’s work is also more legible than that of Gozzoli. This is not so much due to the use of fewer figures (fifteen figures as opposed to eighteen with Gozzoli), but more because Ghirlandaio shows only two events and Gozzoli three. The legibility is further enhanced by the clear spatial layout and the two actions that are very effectively placed in the image plane. Finally, Domenico has created a sharply defined foreground and middle ground by using architecture. The hierarchy is immediately clear: the central theme, the expulsion of Joachim from the temple, has been put in the foreground. In addition, Domenico has isolated this event from the surrounding figures. This is not the case with Augustine kneeling before Symmachus. These two – just like Augustine who is being removed from his cloak and spurs – are part of a crowd so that the attention does not fall directly on the three events.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ detail: Augustine kneeling

The temple of Ghirlandaio is immediately clear to the viewer: a Greek cross, consisting of five bays. In the background, a loggia of seven arcades, flanked by two identical palazzos, closes off the space. This quickly draws the viewer’s gaze to the foreground. In Gozzoli’s work, the eye of the viewer can gaze into the distance. This effect is further enhanced by the diagonals and the decrease in size of the columns as they are placed further back. The depth of the loggia looks strange compared to the building on the right. A closer look reveals that this building is not part of the loggia, but a separate building with a wall that is too thin. In short, Gozzoli’s building confuses the viewer.

The fresco is so convincing because of the clear layout of the space and the way in which the figures are placed in the scene. The manner in which Ghirlandaio depicts the actions contributes greatly to its legibility. The theme, the expulsion of Joachim, not only catches the eye immediately, but also impresses the viewer. Joachim is pushed down the stairs by the priest. He turns his head and looks in amazement at the priest, clasping his sacrifice that was not accepted: the lamb. The gaze and attitude of the priest and his opened lips, which seem to speak, betray a rather resolute, if not aggressive, action. In the centre, where all the lines disappear, the second event of the story can be seen. The priest behind the altar receives the sacrificial lamb with open arms. The man whose sacrifice is accepted, stands in the middle while Joachim is chased out of the centre. Both stories, about accepting and rejecting the sacrifice, are distributed along the middle axis. The spectator, passers-by and the other participants are symmetrically divided on both sides of these events.

Ghirlandaio ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’           Layout Mary left wall

Ghirlandaio ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ 

Gozzoli depicts three scenes from Saint Augustine’s life within one frame. Augustine can be recognized by the hat he is wearing in the three scenes. Gozzoli suggested the idea of time by painting the three events at different places in the same scene. Each story is emphasized by means of the architecture: in front of and in the loggia and lastly in front of the arcade of the hallway (far right). Here, as with Domenico, figures are depicted that ‘speak’ through gestures and poses. Because Gozzoli’s painterly space and architecture are unclear and the groups of figures are not defined well enough, the different episodes of the narrative are not connected to each other. Moreover, the sequence of the three events remains unclear. As a viewer, you can only understand the story if you are familiar with Augustine’s life.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ fresco 1464 Sant’Agostino

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Arrival of Augustine in Milan’ fresco 1464

Continuation Florence day 5: Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel IV