Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi IV

3.     The fresco cycle and the altarpiece

3.1. An overview

On three of the four walls, the procession of the kings with their attendants on their way to the child Jesus is painted. The Procession of the Three Kings, the Cavalcade dei Magi, depicted by Gozzoli here, has been reenacted in Florence since 1417. Family members of important families, including the Medici, actually participated in this event. This tradition is still upheld to this day. Every year, the three Kings on horseback, along with no fewer than 700 other participants, form the ‘Cavalcade’: a long procession that starts from the Palazzo Pitti, crosses the Ponte Vecchio, and arrives at the Piazza della Signoria accompanied by flag bearers. The procession then continues to the Piazza Duomo, where the Three Kings present their gifts to the Christ Child in the live Nativity scene in front of the St. Maria del Fiore. Source quote and translation: Italy highlighted.

The Castle       Zoom out

Gozzoli  'Casltle'  Cappella dei Magi

The journey starts at the eastern wall (right side) by a high castle. A long line of participants on foot and on horseback descends the hills. The entire procession stretches along the eastern, southern, and western walls.

The procession on foot and horseback        Zoom out

Gozzoli 'Procession on foot and horseback ' Cappella dei Magi

On each wall, a king is depicted: at the beginning, the young king; on the adjacent wall, the middle-aged one; and on the west wall, the old king. Each king is followed by a group on foot and on horseback. The kings are prominently displayed on each wall. The young and old kings on opposite walls gaze at each other. In Florence at that time, beards were completely out of fashion, making it clear to contemporaries that the travelers with beards and strange headwear came from the East. Surrounding the kings are the brigata, eleven youths, with a messere (leader) at the head. This was customary among the nobility and also in Florence for ceremonies and processions. Each group has a page holding the gifts, and another page next to him carries a sword. At the middle king, both figures have disappeared due to the alterations needed to build the grand staircase.

Brigata around the young king detail east wall     The king     East wall

Gozzoli 'Brigata around the young king' Cappella dei Magi

Each group is distinguished by different clothing. The four colors – white, green, red, and blue – occur in combination with one predominant color that characterizes each messere. White for the young king, green for the mature king, and red for the old king. This precisely follows the sequence representing the colors of three seasons: white, green, and red. Unfortunately, in literature, the kings Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior are often confused with each other. Sometimes Melchior is the old king and sometimes the middle one. In the Legenda Aurea, Caspar, at twenty years old, is the youngest, Balthasar, at forty, is the middle one, and the oldest, Melchior, is sixty. To avoid confusion, the names of the kings are not mentioned, just as in the Web Gallery of Art, where many good images of the chapel are displayed. Cristina Acidini Luchinat has created the following schema in a monograph about the chapel.

Gozzoli 'Face Young King' Cappella dei Magi

The King
Age: Young
Continents: Asia
Direction: East
Time: Morning
Season: Spring
Color: White
Virtues: Faith


The King
Age: Middle-aged
Continents: Africa
Direction: South
Time: Afternoon
Season: Summer
Color: Green
Virtues: Hope

Gozzoli 'Face middle-aged King' Cappella dei Magi
Gozzoli 'Face old King'  Cappella dei

The King
Age: Old
Continents: Europe
Direction: West
Time: Evening
Season: Autumn
Color: Red
Virtues: Love

Shepards (left)     In Situ     Shepards (right)     In situ

In the two scenes of the shepherds, there is a serene calm. Quite different from the hustle of the travelers, the clatter of horses, the sounds of the hunt, and the death struggle of the bull leaped upon by a leopard at the throat.

Gozzoli 'Shepard' Cappella dei Magi

Hunting      The hunting dog

Gozzoli 'Hunting' Cappella dei Magi
Gozzoli 'Angels descending from Heaven' Cappella dei Magi

Angels descending from Heaven

The two gilded Corinthian pilasters with the raised floor mark the transition to the sacred part: the chapel with the altar. On the two opposite walls of the choir, angels descend from heaven while other angels already stand on earth, some kneeling and singing before the newborn on the altarpiece.

The perspective is indeed employed, but there is no coherent application in the fresco cycle. For instance, the trees behind the two pages on horseback with sword and gift for the young king are depicted much too small. Even the technique of diminishing figures as they recede into the background is not utilized, despite being known at the time. The spacing between the figures and the background reflects an older style. Benozzo likely adhered to this conservative approach because of his patron’s wishes. The spatial arrangement of the figures and the heads strongly resembles the style of the international Gothic, as seen in the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano.

Benozzo and his assistants painted by candlelight. The frescoes are best viewed under this light. No expense was spared. There was lavish use of gold, silver, and precious pigments such as lapis lazuli. Gold and silver have the property of reflecting almost all light, which is quite handy in the dimly lit chapel. In a correspondence between Benozzo Gozzoli and his patron, Piero, the painter notes that he can save significantly by purchasing 15,000 sheets of gold leaf from the Pierfranciecho family. Additionally, he must acquire two ounces of blue from the Jesuits.

The three walls depicting the procession of the kings were painted in a hundred and fifty days. Furthermore, a lot of a secco work had to be applied. Gozzoli was precise in his painting. During the entire fresco cycle, not a single pentimento (repentance stroke) was found during the last major restoration in 1988-1992.

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Two Kings’
Gentile da Fabriano ‘The Adoration of the Kings’

The hunt, the wealth of materials, gold, gemstones, various fine and precious fabrics such as brocade and silk, the tracks of the riders, saddles, and horse harnesses make it clear that here we are dealing with the nobility and their courtly culture. It evokes a renowned artwork from the international Gothic: The Adoration of the Kings by Gentile da Fabriano (now in the Uffizi). Fabriano had painted his altarpiece commissioned by the prominent Florentine family: Strozzi. Piero, at the very least, wanted the painting in his chapel to rival Gentile’s work in splendor, magnificence, and richness. Benozzo also drew inspiration from Fabriano’s Adoration. For instance, he bases the crowns of the young and middle-aged kings on those painted by Gentile da Fabriano in his Adoration.

Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (late 1425-1430 (made) – 1430)

Devonshire  Tapestries  detail:
Victoria & Albert Museum and Wikipedia
Devonshire Tapestries  detail: Dogs hunting a boar

Dogs hunting a boar

The wealth, the horses, and the hunt also bring to mind Flemish tapestries. Piero and his brother, Giovanni, collected tapestries. The weaver, Lieven from Bruges, made two tapestries for the Palazzo Medici in 1447. Art historian Diane Cole Ahl, in her monograph on Gozzoli, points to the tapestry from 1440-1445 of Devonshire (Wikipedia), which depicts hunting scenes including the pursuit of boars and bears. Piero, the patron, was familiar with the courtly style from his dealings with France and Burgundy. The Medici, as wealthy merchants, also sought to adopt a noble style.

A Monkey

They did not heed the warning given by Antonino, the Archbishop of Florence from 1446-1459, who expressed:

“Painting details of saints and church, things that do not contribute to an atmosphere of reverence but rather evoke laughter and vanity – monkeys or dogs chasing hares, and the like, or clothing [Middle-aged King] painted with meaningless decorative details.”

Gozzoli ' A Monkey'  Cappella dei Magi

The Lamb of God

Gozzoli  'Lamb of God' Cappella dei Magi

Wealthy patricians like the Medici faced a significant problem as Christians due to their earnings from money trading. The church strongly condemned money trading; it was even forbidden. The Medici were not immune to accusations of making usurious profits. The gifts brought by the kings are depicted very prominently by Gozzoli. Vespasiano de’ Bisticci, the biographer of Cosimo the Elder, recounts how Cosimo donated large sums of money for the construction of San Marco, the choir of SS. Annunziata, San Lorenzo, and Santo Spirito. By giving gifts to the church, one could receive penance, in other words, a portion of one’s sins forgiven. Additionally, dedicating masses in the Medici chapel also contributed to the salvation of the family’s souls. The Lamb of God in the antechamber demonstrated how crucial this was during the Apocalypse.

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