Ghirlandaio and the Vespucci Chapel (Ognissanti III)

Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti

Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti Florence
photo: Shutterstock

In the church, the second chapel on the right houses an early work, likely from 1472, by Ghirlandaio. Around 1616, the fresco disappeared behind white lime. In 1898, it was rediscovered behind a painting by Matteo Rosselli. The architectural moldings have vanished, and only remnants remain of the two saints in the niches.

Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti      Choir      Other side

Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti  interior nave
photos: Ricardalovesmonumenten

The fresco consists of two parts: the upper part, depicting the Mantel Madonna, takes the form of a lunette and conforms to the architecture. The lower half is divided into two narrow painted niches (with the archangel Raphael on the left) and a square in the middle. Here, a Pietà is painted. Between these parts, Ghirlandaio painted an architectural framework that has disappeared. He had painted a similar frame a year earlier in the Santa Andrea in Cercina near Florence.

Ghirlandaio Vespucci altar

Ghirlandaio  Vespucci altar
photos: Sailko

Domenico Ghirlandaio’s son, Ridolfo, painted a Holy Trinity in the early seventeenth century in the opposite chapel. It is quite possible that he based the architectural framework between the scenes on his father’s work.

Madonna della Misericordia

Domenico di Michelino ‘Madonna della Misericordia’

In the lunette, the Mantle Madonna or the Madonna of Grace [misericordia] is painted. This theme was not so common in Florence. The Brotherhood of the Misericordia had a fresco painted in 1342 with the , diagonally across the corner to the left of the Duomo. Additionally, Domenico di Michelino painted another Mantle Madonna in the Ospedale degli Innocenti, which protects the foundlings.

Domenico di Michelino 'Madonna della Misericordia' detail


Ghirlandaio follows the conventional scheme, much like Piero della Francesca and Fra Filippo Lippi before him. Francesco’s work from 1460-1462 still retains some medieval characteristics. For instance, Mary is depicted disproportionately large compared to the people kneeling under her mantle. Mary has a rigid posture and appears unapproachable; she does not convey the image of a merciful woman. Ghirlandaio divides the men and women into two groups, much like Piero della Francesca: the women on the right of Mary and the men on the left.

Ghirlandaio ‘Madonna della Misericordia’ 1471-1472

Ghirlandaio ‘Madonna della Misericordia’
photo: Sailko

Ghirlandaio, like Piero della Francesca, divides the men and women into two groups: women to the right of Mary and men to the left.

Piero della Francesca  ‘Madonna della Misericordia’ 1460-1462

Piero della Francesca  ‘Madonna della Misericordia'

Ghirlandaio doesn’t paint Mary larger than the other figures, but he does place her on a pedestal.

The inscription on the pedestal reads:
The earth is filled with the mercy of the Lord
Psalm 32, 5. 6 and 1 (Vulgate)

Mary holds up her cloak, assisted by two angels. The folds of Mary’s cloak resemble the flutings of a column. Even the color of her hands evokes marble. Beneath the cloak, two circles form. The outer circle, with two figures on each side, draws the viewer into its composition. The inner circle is closed, and among its members are the kneeling man in the red cloak with his wife, Nanna, painted to his right. She is dressed in black with a profile perdu. He is likely the patron: the jurist Ser Amerigo Vespucci. Not to be confused with the famous grandson Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer. Brockhaus, who conducted extensive research in 1902 based on tax records, family trees, and family history, believes he recognizes some of the family members portrayed by Ghirlandaio.

Ghirlandaio ‘Madonna della Misericordia’ detail: Madonna

Vasari identified the young boy behind and to the right of the man in the red cloak as follows: “His first paintings were in the Vespucci chapel in the Ognissanti, a dead Christ and some saints, and on an arch a Mercy in which was the portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed by ship to India […].” 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. 246 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

Vasari likely confuses himself and mixes up the names of the jurist Amerigo Vespucci (the man in the red cloak, who died in 1472) and the later explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. The woman in the dark red cloak is probably Simonetta Vespucci. She wears her hair in a hairstyle that was fashionable at the time, with part of the hair above the forehead partly shaved off.

The subjects, Madonna della Misericordia and the Pietà, are very suitable for a burial chapel. In the fresco of the from 1342 by the school of Bernardo Daddi in the Bigallo, Mary watches over the city of Florence and its inhabitants.

Bernardo Daddi ‘Madonna della Misericordia’ 1342       Florence and his inhabitants

Bernardo Daddi 'Madonna della Misericordia' detail: Florence inhabitants

In the Vespucci chapel, it’s not the Florentines and their city, but primarily the family members and the wife of Amerigo Vespucci who are protected. The family members kneel before the Mother of Jesus, most of them with their hands folded in prayer. Some gaze up at Mary, while others devoutly bow their heads before her. Mary plays an important role in Christianity as an intercessor between the believer who seeks help and Christ. Furthermore, Mary is referred to as “porta coeli” in one of the oldest hymns in her honor, the Ave Maris Stella.

Hail, star of the sea,
Blessed Mother of God,
And ever-virgin,
Happy gate of heaven (porta coeli).

At the Last Judgment, Mary was thus very important to the believer. The Pietà also serves an important function in the burial chapel. It made clear to the believer that Christ had sacrificed his son to save humanity after the Fall. Through his death on the cross, it was once again possible for Christians to attain eternal life in the afterlife after death on earth.

The Pietà

Ghirlandaio detail and entirety       Pietà       Sinopia

Ghirlandaio 'Pietà' Ognissanti
photos: jean louis mazieres

Underneath the Mantle Madonna, placed between two saints in niches, Ghirlandaio painted a Lamentation. In the center, the body of Christ is depicted, with Mary supporting her son while John the Apostle holds the left arm of the deceased, and Mary Magdalene holds his feet. Five of the other six figures either observe or are lost in thought. One figure, the man in the blue mantle with a martyr’s palm in his hand, gazes out at the viewer from the fresco. John the Baptist is the only figure easily recognizable by his staff (behind the head of the man in the blue mantle) and his camel-hair garment. All figures are idealized and based on models or pattern books. Only the two standing entirely to the left in the composition are portraits. Though they wear halos and thus represent saints, they are also portraits of contemporaries.

Ghirlandaio 'Pietà' detail  Ognissanti 
photo: jean louis mazieres

Deposition, a Pietà, or an Entombment?

Upon closer examination, the subject is not unequivocal: is it a Deposition, a Pietà, or an Entombment? Ghirlandaio deviates from the usual and traditional way of depicting these three scenes. He incorporates elements of each scene, creating a new imagery. A comparison with the work of Castagno speaks volumes. His design of a Pietà for a rose window of the Duomo and his Entombment, painted in the Sant’Apollonia, adhere entirely to the customary way of portrayal.

A comparison with the work of Castagno speaks volumes. His design of a Pietà for a rose window of the Duomo and his Entombment, painted in the Sant’Apollonia, adhere entirely to the customary way of portrayal.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Pietà’          Zoom in

Andrea del Castagno 'Pietà' rose window

Not so for Ghirlandaio: the posture of Christ and the peculiar entanglement of the bodies of Christ, Mary, John the Apostle, and Mary Magdalene create confusion. There is no tomb in sight, only a cross in the background, and Christ does not lie as usual in a Lamentation on his mother’s lap. While the Mantle Madonna fits into the Italian convention as seen, for instance, in Lippo Memmi (1350) and Piero della Francesca (1460 – 1462), Ghirlandaio employs Northern art for his Lamentation.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Portinari Altarpiece’ 1473 – 1478

This art was strongly emerging in Italy during the second half of the fifteenth century. In the literature on the Vespucci Chapel, there is often reference to a painting attributed to Rogier van der Weyden. The Northerners were admired not only for their advanced realism and attention to detail but also for their ability to evoke strong emotions in the viewer. Thus, these artists emphasized emotions in scenes such as the Crucifixion or Lamentation by painting tears or giving the dead body of Christ a pale corpse color. This is precisely what Ghirlandaio also does in his Lamentation.

Ghirlandaio detail and entirety       Pietà 

Ghirlandaio  Pietà Ognissanti

When the fresco was removed from the wall and restored in 1966, before the major flooding, the sinopia of the Lamentation also came to light. As often is the case with Ghirlandaio, he deviates from the sinopia while painting, but in this instance, it is rather significant.

Ghirlandaio  Pietà detail Ognissanti

At the very last moment, the artist adds a new figure, the second figure from the left: the man in the blue mantle. John the Baptist, who was originally in the place of the new figure according to the sinopia, was relocated. The city’s patron saint of Florence had to be depicted, naturally. While there was harmony among the figures in the sinopia, this was no longer the case in the fresco. It is likely that the artist was compelled by his patron to add another portrait.

All heads were painted with a portion of the landscape in one time of day except for the new figure. Ghirlandaio indeed used one time of day, but only for the head. After painting the man in the blue mantle, Ghirlandaio adjusted the three left figures. Ghirlandaio used cardboard for the sinopia. In the underdrawing on the arriccio of the fresco, traces of dots can still be seen near the mantle of Mary and the shroud of Christ. These black dots are remnants of the spolvero method. The contours and details of the drawings were transferred to the first layer of lime using cardboard stencils. In the sinopia, the right leg of John the Apostle is positioned in front of the right leg of Christ. Ghirlandaio corrects this in the final painting. This unrealistic overlap can probably be explained by the artist using multiple drawings that were transferred to the arriccio.

Ghirlandaio  Pietà detail: landscape  Ognissanti

The bare spot beneath and in the middle of the composition is not damage; a tabernacle once occupied this space, an appropriate spot to store the hosts directly beneath the dead body of Christ. During the Lamentation, the Eucharist was offered. According to church beliefs, Christ was truly present during the mass. Nowadays, restorers have filled the empty space as if it had always been part of the landscape.

In the literature about the Vespucci Chapel, the question has often been raised whether the Mantle Madonna and the Pietà were painted simultaneously and whether they originally belonged together. Key arguments included the somewhat less successful composition of the Lamentation and the difference in style between the Pietà and the Mantle Madonna. With the restoration in 1966, a clear answer emerged: the entire fresco was painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio on the same wall during the same period (Cadogan, J.K., ‘Domenico Ghirlandaio Artist and Artisan’, Yale University Press/ New Haven, London 2000 p. 193). The location where it is visible again after 1898 is also where it was painted. In 1480, the year Domenico Ghirlandaio painted his Last Supper in the refectory of the monastery, he had to compete against another painter from Florence: Sandro Botticelli.

Continuation Florence day 6: Ghirlandaio and Botticelli: Jerome and Augustine I (Ognissanti IV)