Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child (Ognissanti I)

Ognissanti        Zoom in      Interior       Aerial

Chiesa Ognissanti
photos: Sailko; zoom: Lucarelli; interior: dvdbramhall; aerial: Putneypics

The monks of the Humiliati from Lombardy were seeking a place in Florence to build a church. It became the Quarters of Santa Maria Novella near the current Ponte alla Carraia.

Ponte alle Carraia   Florence
photos:Giorgio Galeotti; view: Sailko

Ponte alle Carraia       View from above

Construction of the church and monastery began in 1250 and was completed five years later. The monks processed sheepskins for the habits of the female branch of their order. Additionally, they rented around thirty houses to families of wool workers. In 1269, the Humiliati replaced the nearby bridge with a sturdier structure, which has since been known as the Ponte alla Carraia. The name is derived from the “carri” or carts that transported raw and processed wool across the Arno between the parishes of Ognissanti and S. Frediano, where the wool workers were located. The original mills of Ognissanti, which pumped water into the back canals, were initiated by two noble families – the Tornaquinci and the Frescobaldi. However, in the 14th century, they were taken over by the Umiliati. Source: Eve Borsook, ‘Stergids Florence’, Agon, Amsterdam, 1993 blz. 192-193

Giovanni Signorini “Veduta dell’Arno da Ponte alla Carraia” 1846      Ponte alla Carraia

Giovanni Signorini “Veduta dell'Arno da Ponte alla Carraia” 1846  
Sailko: Ponte alla Carraia

The establishment of the church in this working-class neighborhood aligned well with the principles of the order. After all, the word “umiliati” stands for humility (Wikipedia).

Ognissanti still houses several artworks today, including a Crucifixion by Taddeo Gaddi from 1366, a fresco by Botticelli, three works by Domenico Ghirlandaio, and a mural by Domenico’s son, Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio. In the church, the artist Botticelli and the famous Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci are buried, marked by two round tombstones in the floor.


The famous altarpiece that Giotto painted around 1310 for the main altar of the Ognissanti is unfortunately no longer in its original location but can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery.

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child’ c. 1310      Zoom in

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child'

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child’ c. 1310

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child'  Uffizi in situ
photo: Steven Zucker

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child’ c. 1310

The panel by Giotto was probably painted between 1306 and 1310, so about twenty-five years later than the two other works by Duccio and Cimabue, but what a world of difference! This is a revolution in painting. It is for good reason that Giotto has been praised so often. Writers, artists and historians such as Dante, Boccaccio, Ghiberti, the chronicler Giovanni Villani and of course Vasari praise this painter.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Giovanni Boccaccio’ c. 1450

“Giotto, had so excellent a genius that there was nothing of all which Nature, mother and mover of all things, presenteth unto us by the ceaseless revolution of the heavens, but he with pencil and pen and brush depicted it and that so closely that not like, nay, but rather the thing itself it seemed, insomuch that men’s visual sense is found to have been oftentimes deceived in things of his fashion, taking that for real which was but depictured. Wherefore, he having brought back to the light this art, which had for many an age lain buried under the errors of certain folk who painted more to divert the eyes of the ignorant than to please the understanding of the judicious, he may deservedly be styled one of the chief glories of Florence, the more so that he bore the honours he had gained with the utmost humility and although, while he lived, chief over all else in his art, he still refused to be called master, which title, though rejected by him, shone so much the more gloriously in him as it was with greater eagerness greedily usurped by those who knew less than he, or by his disciples.” Giovanni Boccaccio ‘Decamerone’ Day Sixth: Fifth story (translated by John Payne Gutenberg).

Contemporaries of Giotto were not only astonished by the unprecedented realism of their time, but also puzzled by the placement of the saints. It was deemed inappropriate to place angels among the saints, especially two kneeling ones. The painter Cimabue, a contemporary of Giotto, placed his four saints at the bottom of the composition as was customary, and painted his angels where they belonged: above and in the vicinity of Mary with her child. The remarkable fact that Giotto painted his saints so high and close to Mary on the panel is related to the commissioners: the order of the Umiliati. This monastic order, with their main church, the Ognissanti (literally: all saints), held humility in high regard, as the name of the order suggests. Now, angels who lowered themselves to a position beneath their worth demonstrated their submissiveness. This, precisely, is a trait that the son of God also displayed through his crucifixion. By this behavior, the angels elevated themselves in the eyes of their Lord. If you look closely at the saints in Giotto’s altarpiece, you can see on the right and left of the throne that Giotto incorporated the word Ognissanti into his depiction.

Read more about Giotto, Cimabue and Duccio click here.

Continuation Florence day 6: Ghirlandaio and the Last Supper  (Ognissanti II)