Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel IV

The Birth of Mary

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’       Layout Mary frescoes left wall

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’

The interior where the birth takes place, could be from one of the Florentine palazzi. Vasari describes this scene as follows:

“The second scene depicts the birth of Our Lady, executed with great care; among the various remarkable things accomplished by Domenico here, there is, in the perspectively depicted building, a window through which light falls into the room, deceiving the viewer. Furthermore, he depicted some women here who – while Anna lies in bed and has some ladies visiting – very carefully bathe the Madonna: one brings water, another takes care of the swaddling clothes, one does this and another does something else, and while each devotes herself to her task, there is a woman carrying the baby on her arm and making it laugh by making faces, with a feminine grace truly worthy of such a painting, apart from the many other expressions in all the different figures.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel I blz. 251-252 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).”

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’  detail dancing music-making putti
photos: Sailko

Dancing and music-making putti

The cheerful dancing and music-making putti above the panelling are based on the cantorie of Donatello and Luca della Robbia made fifty years earlier. The illumination of the putti is not only caused by the natural light from the three gothic windows in the chapel on the right, but also by a painted window through which light flows in. This light, which of course also comes from the right, divides the relief frieze with putti into a section that stands in the shade and a second section that receives a lot of light.

Joachim and Anne      In situ

At the feet of these putti is written in Latin: ‘Your birth, oh Virgin and Mother of God, brings joy to the whole universe’. Under this text, in the two outer panels, the painter put his signature, ‘GRILLANDAI’, and on the left the name of his family, ‘BIGHORDI’. According to Vasari, Ghirlandaio got his name from the word ‘ghirlanda’: a wreath of flowers. Domenico was the first to invent a ghirlanda as a head ornament for Florentine ladies. At the top of the stairs, the meeting of Mary’s parents can be seen: Joachim and Anne.

They lovingly embrace each other, knowing that Anna will give birth to a child despite her old age and Joachim’s refused sacrifice. This is the only scene in which Ghirlandaio painted a second story within the same frame. However, this second story, in which the Golden Gate has become a door, is well separated from the central theme: the birth of Mary. Ghirlandaio pulled off a clever trick by painting two levels in the interior. This creates space and time in two different places for the meeting of Joachim and Anna as well as for the birth of their daughter Mary. It is for good reason that the painter places Joachim and Anne high and far above the foreground.

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’  detail: Joachim Anne
Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’  detail: Ludovica Tornabuoni

Ludovica Tornabuoni

Moreover, Mary’s parents are considerably smaller than the figures in The Birth of Mary, which took place later. Only the halo and the clothing (despite a different colour) of Anne are the same. Ghirlandaio uses all of this to make his central theme clear to the viewer. Ludovica Tornabuoni slowly walks with her retinue to the newborn child. Her upright posture and the beautiful rich brocade robe resemble a human variant of the richly decorated pillars. The woman kneeling with the child sees Ludovica enter.

Woman pouring water into basin

Because of her twisted head and her gaze, the biblical scene is connected to the world of the Tornabuonis. The solemn static posture of the figures on the right is interrupted by the woman on the left pouring water into a basin. Her posture, the position of her legs, but above all the folds of her clothes flapping backwards, reveal all sorts of movement. Ghirlandaio has made a preliminary study of this woman (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Flornece, Inv. 289 E).

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’  detail: Woman pouring water into basin
Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘Birth of Mary’  detail: Woman entering room

Woman entering the room

This drawing, which measures twenty-two by seventeen centimetres, shows that Ghirlandaio in his final painted version deviated slightly from his preliminary study, mainly with regard to the sleeves and folds. On the opposite wall, depicting the birth of John the Baptist, a woman enters the room on the right, who in terms of her body movement is strongly reminiscent of the woman pouring water.

A study of the entire composition has been preserved. The fresco shows considerably less depth than the compositional study. Presumably to emphasize the figures. A deeper space would distract too much from the figures in the story. In addition to this study drawing, Ghirlandaio also produced a cartoon of the head of one of the women from Ludovica’s retinue. Cartoons were used in many places in the chapel. Ghirlandaio rarely used the so-called spolveri method for his cartoons as it was rather time consuming. After all, many holes had to be pricked into the cartoon along the drawn lines.

Study ‘Birth of the Virgin’

Domenico Ghirlandaio Study 'Birth of the Virgin'
British Museum, London

Head of a Woman fresco
Ghirlandaio Study head of a Woman Chatsworth Collection

More often he traced the outlines of the cartoon directly on the plaster wall with a stylus. This less laborious method was adopted by other painters, including Signorelli. The drawing of the head, which is now in Chatsworth, is probably a duplicate of a used cartoon. A cartoon was put on a moist plaster wall and often had to be cut into manageable pieces. In this way, used cartoons were always crumpled, cracked and worn-out. The story of Mary is continued in the middle.

Continuation Florence day 5: Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel V