Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi III

2.    Meaning of the frescoes and the altarpiece in the chapel
2.1. Poem, floor inscription, portal, and altarpiece

Cappella dei Magi
Dr. Rebecca Howard Smarthistory
Cappella dei Magi Heavenly singing Gozzoli

It is likely that the next stanza was positioned in the floor directly before the ascent to the choir.

Gifts      Heavenly singing


The gifts of the Kings,
the prayers of the divine beings,
the spirit of the Virgin,
these are the sanctities in the chapel [of the altar].
Do not enter this space, O worldly crowd.

During the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, the section of floor with the stanza, much silverware, and Lippi’s original altarpiece disappeared. Later, Becchi added a title to the stanza. The rhyme is likely from a different author.
“To Cosimo’s chapel, in the first part where the Magi are painted, in the second the singing angels, in the third Mary adoring the child. So that the visitor with his heart, word, and deed shall offer.”

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration in the Forest’  
Mary, Child, God the Father and the Holy Ghost

The text of the stanza and the titulus correspond to the division in the chapel. The space of the kings, the walls of the choir with the angels, and thirdly the altarpiece where Mary adores her child. In this division, there is an ascending hierarchy in what is important. From the earthly gifts that the three kings bring in the first part of the chapel, to the heavenly singing of the angels in the choir space, and as an apotheosis finally the Virgin who venerates her child.

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration in the Forest’  detail: Mary and Child

The importance of the choir space is not only affirmed by this hierarchy, but also by the warning to the chapel visitor not to enter the choir space. As described earlier, the chapel had a dual function, but it was clear that the choir section was reserved only for the priest and not for the worshipper.

John the Baptist       Gozzoli ‘Lamb of God’
Schubert Agnes Dei

In the altarpiece, John the Baptist is depicted holding a staff in his left hand with a scroll on which the words ‘ECCE AGNUS DEI’ are written. This refers to ‘Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,’ meaning ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’

The original door in the portal provided access to the chapel. Above this entrance, Benozzo Gozzoli painted a Lamb lying on an altar with seven sealed scrolls. This is described by John the Evangelist in his book, ‘Revelations’ (Revelation 5:1-3).

Gozzoli ‘Lamb of God’ in situ

As the seals have not yet been broken, the emphasis is not on the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment, and the triumphant God, but on the suffering of Christ. The Lamb is not depicted as usual, proud and standing, but meekly and modestly lying on an altar. This posture of the Lamb corresponds to the passion tools in the reliquary, which stood on the altar in the choir. Indeed, the passion tools refer to the suffering of Christ.

The goldfinch at the feet of the newborn in the altarpiece is a symbol of the suffering of Christ. At that time, it was believed that goldfinches lived on thorns and thistles. In the copy made at the end of the fifteenth century of Lippi’s altarpiece, the goldfinch disappeared.

Gozzoli 'Lamb of God;'detail Cappella dei Magi

The halo of the Lamb already points to the future: Christ as the victor and savior of humanity. In the antependium (Wikipedia) of the altar, Gozzoli painted pomegranates, the usual signs of resurrection. There is still a clear link between the Lamb of God in the vestibule and the opposite back wall of the choir. The four evangelists revered the Lamb as a sign of Christ’s victory and the salvation of humanity (Revelation 4:7). The monogram, IHS, visible in the center of the ceiling in the choir space, also symbolized in the days of Cosimo and Piero the second coming of Christ and his victory.

2.2. Symbols and portraits

Surrounding the monogram, IHS, is a circular garland with ostrich feathers held together by diamond rings. In the corners of the choir ceiling are four large rings connected by a scroll. On the scroll is written SEMPER (ALWAYS). This was a motto primarily used by knights. The feathers and diamond rings are heraldic symbols of the Medici. Semper was the motto of Piero de Medici. On the plaque that Piero had made for the birth of his son, Lorenzo, in 1449, the feathers, the ring, and the motto are visible on the back.

Triumph of Fame c. 1444            Reverse

Lo Sceggia 'Triumph of Fame '
Gozzoli 'Three pages with ostrich feathers' Cappella dei Magi

Three pages with ostrich feathers

This motto is visible in multiple places in the frescoes, such as on the richly decorated harness of his horse and on the man walking in front of the young king. The balls present in the Medici coat of arms also reappear in the harness of the white horse that Piero de’ Medici rides. The richly inlaid floor is executed in the colors: red, white, and green, Piero’s heraldic colors.

The ostrich feathers are not only found on the ceiling in the garland, but also on several figures in the procession of the three kings. Thus, on the south wall behind the middle king, there are three pages, each wearing three ostrich feathers on their mazzocchio (a headpiece that was fashionable at the time).

The falcon with the hare as prey

On the adjacent wall, to the right of the old king, a man also wears three feathers. These feathers are interpreted as signs of the Holy Trinity or as theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. The ancient tradition of animals as symbols dates back to the Physiologus (that can be read here), where the feather represented the followers of Christ. Some animals in the fresco cycle are also symbols, such as the falcon with the hare as prey or the wild cat that is leashed. Like the donkey in the fresco, the cat also gazes out. In Christian symbolism, the donkey and the wild cat have a negative meaning. This does not apply to the falcon, which is a sign of chivalrous virtue. It is not certain whether this has anything to do with one of Piero’s emblems where a falcon holds a diamond ring in its claws.

Gozzoli 'Falcon with the hare as prey'
Cappella dei Magi

The peacock in the adoration of the angels (choir) is a well-known Christian symbol that is also often associated with the Medici. Due to the belief that the flesh of a peacock never spoils, it is a symbol of immortality, paradise, and resurrection. Peacocks are also visible in two altarpieces by Fra Filippo Lippi and Domenico Veneziano, commissioned by the Medici, with the subject: Adorations of the kings.

Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Magi tondo’ 1492

Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Magi tondo'
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and Wikipediai (details)

The Peacock

None of the symbols mentioned above were exclusively characteristic of the Medici. The Gonzaga and Sforza also used these signs. The falcon and peacock were commonly employed. Cosimo’s sons, Piero and Giovanni, were the first in the family to use the emblems and symbols of nobility.

Gozzoli 'The Peacock' Cappella dei Magi
Gozzoli 'Portrait of Piero d' Medici' Cappella dei magi

Piero d’ Medici

In a chapel of the Medici, naturally, the most important Medicis are portrayed. The commissioner of Benozzo Gozzoli, Piero de Medici, nicknamed il Gottoso (the gouty), rides a dapple-gray horse directly behind the young king. Beside and to his right sits his father, Cosimo, on a brown donkey.

Cosimo on a brown donkey, Piero, Cosimo’s eldest son, on a gray horse      Zoom in
East wall

Gozzoli 'Cosimo on a brown donkey, Piero, Cosimo's eldest son, on a gray horse' Cappella dei Magi

Mantegna ‘Carlo de Medici’ 1465 – 1470

Behind father and son are the sons of Piero, Lorenzo and Giuliano. At the bottom left of the fresco, as mentioned earlier, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, son of the Duke of Milan, are depicted. The face of the man between Cosimo and Piero is likely Carlo de Medici, the illegitimate son of Cosimo who later became the bishop of Prato. Mantegna immortalized this bishop in a painting that now hangs in the Uffizi.

Gozzoli 'Ethiopian slave of the Cardinal of Portugal?' Cappella dei magi

Ethiopian slave of the Cardinal of Portugal?      Face

The black man with the bow on the left foreground among the four horses is, according to the art historian Cole, who has written a monograph on Gozzoli, Bastiano. He was an Ethiopian slave of the Cardinal of Portugal. After the death of this cardinal, Bastiano was resold to the Portuguese bishop Silves Alvaro Alfonso. Bastiano was required by his new master to keep watch over the grave of his first master in the Portuguese chapel in San Miniato al Monte (This identification is quite controversial. For instance, Luchinat was unable to identify this figure, and Morhart writes in an article from 2005 that Cole is mistaken).

At first glance, Gozzoli seems to adhere to the general rule of the time that no women should appear in the procession. However, this is not entirely accurate because women are indeed depicted, but they are so small that they are hardly noticed. High on the right side of the painting, near the wall of the old king where the procession disappears into the forest, Contessina de’Bardi and her daughters-in-law, Lucrezia and Ginevra, are portrayed.

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Self-portrait’

The painter immortalized himself three times. Twice in the fresco with the old king: once while he raises his hand and looks out from the fresco, and in the background where he wears the headgear of a pilgrim. On the opposite wall, the artist is also depicted behind the young king. He wears a red headgear with the inscription: OPVS BENOTHII D [E?] the work of Benozzo. “Ben Noti” (Italian for ‘well noticed’) is also a play on words on the name of Benozzo Gozzoli. Click here for an image of the three walls.

Benozzo Gozzoli 'Self-portrait' Cappella dei Magi

Continuation Florence day 6: Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi IV