Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel V

The Presentation of Mary in the temple

Ghirlandaio 'Presentation of Mary in the temple' fresco

In the Presentation of Mary, the complex architecture seems to distract from the story. Nevertheless, it is still legible. Right in the middle, the young Mary rushes upstairs with a book in her hands. The priest welcomes her with outstretched arms. Joachim and Anna remain in front of the stairs, while Joachim points his hand upwards. All this tells the viewer what the central theme is. The seated and largely naked figure to the right of the two old men is painted merely to counterbalance the group of women on the left.

Ghirlandaio 'Presentation of Mary in the temple detail: sitting man fresco

Ghirlandaio  ‘Marriage of Mary and Joseph’      Music
Study for the Marriage of the Virgin (Cabinetto dei Disegni, Uffizi, Florence)

Ghirlandaio ‘Marriage of Mary and Joseph’  Tornabuoni chapel

In the adjoining scene of Mary’s wedding, the composition is very clear. In this fresco, the architecture does not distract from the central theme, but rather emphasizes it. The whole composition is focused on Mary and Joseph, as he is about to put the wedding ring around her finger. She is standing directly next to the priest placed in the centre, exactly in front of the middle arch. The priest is holding the hands of the fiancées, while the three of them carefully watch this symbolic act.

Ghirlandaio made another drawing of this in which he outlined the figures and their relationship to one another. Any indication of the space where all this takes place, has been left out. Mary and Joseph are visible, but the priest is not. Mary is drawn twice. This indicates that Ghirlandaio was looking for the best pose for Mary. The fresco beautifully reveals which of the two Mary’s Ghirlandaio finally chose: the Mary who is slightly leaning forward. Such a pose is more in line with Joseph’s, putting them both on an equal footing. Very different from the pose of the Mary standing upright in the preliminary study right next to Joseph.

Boy with a flute

Mary’s first pose in the preliminary study seems to have been used for the two women in the fresco on Mary’s left. The angry man with his arm and clenched fist, depicted in the sky of the drawing, has also been slightly altered in the fresco. The pose of this man is examined three times. On the verso side of the study of Mary and Joseph, a boy with a flute is sketched. This figure can also be seen in the fresco. Although the event is accompanied by music, not everyone seems happy. The figure on the right, in front of the man with the flute, breaks his branch that refused to bloom out of anger. Another rejected suitor raises his fist in anger. According to the story, the man whose branch spontaneously bloomed would become Mary’s husband. The two women on Mary’s left are discussing and commenting on the marriage. Running children are seen on the sides. The colours of their clothes match with those of Mary and Joseph.

Ghirlandaio ‘Marriage of Mary and Joseph’ detail; Boy with flute

Adoration of the Magi, Massacre of the Innocents and Death and Assumption of the Virgin

‘The fifth scene shows the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, with a large retinue of men, horses and camels, and various other things, a scene which is certainly well composed.’ This fresco, on the third level, is severely damaged by moisture. Mary and her child are sitting in the centre, framed by a triumphal arch. Ghirlandaio must have seen such a classical arch, or its remains, during his stay in Rome. The youngest king is about to take off his crown with his left hand, as a sign of deference to the newborn.

Ghirlandaio ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Ghirlandaio 'Adoration of the Magi' Tornabuoni chapel

In his other hand he is holding a gift. The figures in the foreground as a group are less homogeneous than usual with Ghirlandaio. Furthermore, their poses are rather stiff. No portraits have been painted in these scenes either. All this indicates that Ghirlandaio allowed his assistants much more free rein. At this height, directly below the lunette, these small shortcomings were barely visible to the viewer. The giraffe in the upper right corner of the picture plane is probably the one the Medici received as a present from a sultan.

In the adjoining fresco, Ghirlandaio depicts the dramatic event of the slaughter of the innocent children. At first sight, the work is reminiscent of a classic depiction of a battle. This is reinforced by Ghirlandaio’s use of a Roman triumphal arch in the middle as a background.

Ghirlandaio ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’

Ghirlandaio ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ Tornabuoni chapel

Again, as in many scenes, the background acts as a backdrop for the story. The atrocities committed by the soldiers at Herod’s behest, who had to kill all boys two years and younger, are depicted in many different ways. For example, body parts such as arms and heads of the murdered babies can be seen between the feet of the soldiers and mothers in the foreground. With all their might, the women and their children try to escape the massacre. When that turns out to be impossible, one mother tries to take revenge. In the words of Vasari:

Ghirlandaio ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ detail: mother takes revenge

Mother takes revenge

“And then there is yet another soldier who forcibly took away a child and, as he runs, crushes it against his chest to death, while one can see the mother, beside herself with rage, grabbing him by the hair so forcefully that he must bend his back; and the observer receives from this group three splendid impressions: first, there is the death of the child one sees succumbing, then the godforsakenness of the soldier who suddenly feels himself pulled at and evidently wants to take revenge on the child for it, and thirdly, the frenzy, pain, and indignation of the mother who, upon seeing her son die, wants to ensure that the villain cannot escape unpunished: this is rather something for a philosopher with admirable insight than for a painter.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, deel I 1992 blz. 252-253 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

The story of Mary’s life culminates in the lunette: her death and assumption to heaven. Mary is lying in the middle of a bed, while angels and saints are standing around her. With its villas and towns, the landscape is strongly reminiscent of Tuscany. In addition, this landscape separates the two events. Above the landscape, Mary is taken up to heaven. Her son is standing with outstretched arms right above her. None of the spectators have an eye for what is happening above them. For these two stories, Ghirlandaio probably left the execution of the painting to his assistants and pupils. Mary is depicted in an almost Gothic mandorla, while Christ is painted in a strange perspective. Christ’s arms are far too long and his body is too short. These are mistakes that the master himself would have never made.

Ghirlandaio ‘The Death and Assumption of  Mary’

Ghirlandaio ‘The Death and Assumption of  Mary’ Tornabuoni chapel

Continuation Florence day 5: Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel VI