Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi VI

3. 3 The Choir Space and the Altarpiece

Choir       Zoom in       Altarpiece

Cappella dei Magi Gozzoli
Dr. Rebecca Howard Smarthistory

On the side walls of the choir, Gozzoli painted angels paying homage to and singing for the newborn son of Christ on Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece.

Gozzoli 'Angels worshipping' Cappella dei Magi
photo angel looking: Manuelarosi

Angels worshipping (left wall)      Angels worshipping (right wall)
Angels looking at the altarpiece

The choir walls feature a division into four parts in the frescoes: sky with a portion of tree foliage, background with landscape, foreground at the altar, and fourthly a deep garden. The kneeling angels are close to the altarpiece and gaze at the newborn, where Mary is depicted in the same posture as the angels.

Benozzo Gozzoli took into account the dogmas concerning angels descending from heaven to earth: immaterial as they are as pure spirits, upon descending, they acquire a covering of matter. Thus, we see legs and feet suddenly appearing near the earth during the descent: a transformation from purely spiritual to anthropomorphic forms. The fluttering, empty robes change into clothes that envelop a body. In the altarpiece, Christ and the Holy Spirit also descend.

Angels without and with legs and feet         A church in the mountain

Gozzoli 'Angels without and with legs and feet' Cappella dei Magi

In Luke 2:13-14, it is written: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

Angel with Halo

This inscription can be read in Latin on the halos of the angels.


The halos are often regilded and sometimes rewritten with errors.

Gozzoli 'Angel with Halo' Cappella dei Magi
Gozzoli 'Seraphim in tree'  Cappella dei Magi

The proximity of heaven is indicated by the presence of the two seraphim and cherubim, depicted according to the orthodox tradition of Western painting, with seraphim in red and cherubim in blue. When Cosimo stayed in the countryside, his neighbor and friend, Roberto Martelli, kept an eye on the work in the chapel. Before July 10, 1459, Benozzo painted two seraphim on the east wall. If Piero visited before that date, he would have seen these angels. He found them inappropriate but had no criticism of the cherubim. Piero sent a letter to Benozzo about this matter, which unfortunately no longer exists. However, the artist’s response from July 10 still exists.

Benozzo writes to his patron:
“This morning I received a letter from Ruberto Martegli [Roberto Martelli], from which I understand that you feel the seraphim I painted here are out of place. I have added only one in the corner between the clouds, so that only the tips of the wings are visible. It is so well hidden and almost entirely covered by clouds that it does not distract from the painting but rather contributes to its beauty. […] Needless to say, if you wish, I will make the two small clouds disappear.” Thus wrote Benozzo Gozzoli in a letter dated July 10, 1459, to Piero de Cosimo. Acidini Luchinat, C. (edited), ‘The Chapel of the Magi Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London and Thames and Hudson, Inc., 500 fifth Avenue New York 1994 p. 361

Ultimately, Gozzoli did not repaint the two seraphim near the small clouds. During a restoration in 1689-1691, the cherubim completely disappeared under the blue of the sky. However, since the last restoration, the seraphim are visible again.

On the west wall, completely to the left of the angels, there is an angel standing on a cloud. Brunelleschi designed this type of clouds for the popular ‘sacra rappresentazione’: theatrical performances of sacred or biblical events. The stage for such theatrical performances was made of planks covered with cotton fluff to create clouds.

Angels and the ‘Harmonic Hand’      Gozzoli ‘Studies for the Angels’

Gozzoli 'Angels and the Harmonic Hand' Cappella dei Magi
British Museum, London

In the first two rows of standing angels, most are singing. The others are in devout postures. One angel looks upward at an angel descending from heaven. Another angel points with his finger to an angel flying in. They sing without instruments. The facial expressions of the singing angels betray effort. They seem to sing Gregorian chant in a choir without using written music notes. They employ a different method to indicate the notes, namely what is called ‘the harmonic hand’ (Guidonian hand Wikipedia). The angel in a blue and pink robe on the west wall points with the index finger of his right hand to the left hand of the angel standing next to him. He shows the correct sequence of notes by touching the fingertips of different fingers.

Angels: cantors and soloists (east right wall)

Gozzoli 'Angels: cantors and soloists' Cappella dei Magi

The cantors and soloists are found on the east wall: the three of them are the only ones wearing a cloak and undergarment. The middle one of the three, with a broad smile on his face, wears a cassock, which priests also wear, in the colors of the Medici: red, green, and white.

The red edge of the cassock is decorated with coats of arms showing the Medici coat of arms’ pills. The original gold has been later repainted with purple. The two groups on both walls closest to the altar do not sing but worship the child. These angels have two pairs of wings, the upper ones folded above the nimbus and the lower ones spread open. They are likely archangels. The standing angels have only one pair of wings.

The Feeding of the peacock      The Angel     The peacock

Gozzoli 'Feeding of the peacock' Cappella dei Magi

A peacock rests on the fence in front of the garden. It was an important symbol of immortality and the resurrection of Christ. Piero’s personal emblem was also a peacock with the motto ‘REGARDE MOI’.

Red and white roses

The roses are cultivated in a ‘hortus coronarius’ and are meant to be picked. Such gardens were supposed to yield many flowers for wreaths, but especially for garlands. They were used in religious festivals to decorate rooms, buildings, and streets, and in wreaths worn on the head.

Gozzoli 'Red and white roses' Cappella dei Magi

Red and white roses were connected by a core of threads. After the last restoration, the angels making the garlands are visible again. These are based on the garlands in the main altar, ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child,’ which Fra Angelico painted for San Marco.

Angel with garlands      Angel with a basket of roses      Angel

Gozzoli 'Angels with garlands  and roses' Cappella dei Magi

The attire of the angels is entirely painted with gold at the top. The few original hems of the clothing, most dating from 1916, show a lot of secco work with gemstones, jewels, and pearls.

The landscape on the west wall is that of Tuscany. The city in the background resembles Florence, although Brunelleschi’s dome is not visible. The birds on the left wall are not consistently painted to scale, although the feathers are accurate. The painter probably used pattern books here without looking at nature. Among them are: a duck, a type of rooster, a goldfinch, a hoopoe, a yellow-billed bird, and a magpie

Paradisical landscape with birds       A hoopoe   

Gozzoli 'Paradisical landscape with birds' Cappella dei Magi

3.4 The Altarpiece

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Child in the Forest’ c. 1459
Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino after Filippo Lippi

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Child in the Forest'
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie and Wikipedia

The chapel is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. In the altarpiece, this is depicted as follows: high in the center of the composition, God the Father and the Holy Spirit are painted, and below lies the newborn: the incarnation of the Son of God. There are multiple interpretations of the meaning of Lippi’s altarpiece. One of them points to Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the section about paradise, in Canto XXXIII, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is mentioned. This canto (click here to DanteLab to read the Canto) begins with a hymn to Mary. Through Bernard, Dante received a vision of the Trinity. The poet, Dante, begins his journey in a dark forest in search of knowledge. After many wanderings and experiences, the journey ends with the revelation of the Holy Trinity, by which humanity is saved. The forest is an allegory for the state in which humanity, deprived of the sacred light, finds itself. Saint Bernard is painted in the background by Lippi.

Bernard of Clairvaux and John the Baptist were important saints for Florence. Both saints were revered in Florence: John as the city’s patron saint and Bernard in the Cappella dei Priori in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Child in the Forest'  detail: John the Baptist

John the Baptist      Bernard of Clairvaux

The day Bernard died, August twentieth, was one of the most important religious holidays in Florence. The presence of John the Baptist is unusual in a scene around the Nativity. One possible reason is that Epiphany falls on the same day as the day John baptized Christ in the Jordan. The original altarpiece was commissioned by Piero’s father, Cosimo. It was probably already in situ before Benozzo Gozzoli began the fresco cycle in the summer of 1459. Cosimo and his son Piero were members of the Compagnia de’Magi. This association held an annual procession that went from the Piazza della Signoria and Via Larga to San Marco. As previously mentioned, Cosimo participated in this religious procession. He played the role of the king and was dressed in a fur coat with a crown on his head. A makeshift crib was carried in the procession to San Marco. Actors dressed as Mary, Joseph, and the child sat in the crib.

Lippi’s Adoration is very different from the festive procession. Here, no crib and splendor, nor a reference to the story of the birth.

Flippino Lippi ‘The Annalena Nativity ‘ 1455 Uffizi, Florence

Flippino Lippi 'The Annalena Nativity ' 1455 Uffizi

The child lies in a thicket with the young John the Baptist and Saint Bernard. Both are inconspicuously present. The posture of Bernard of Clairvaux seems to tempt the visitor of the chapel to assume the same position.

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Child in the Forest'  detail: Child

The goldfinch, the stork with the snake, the stream of water, and the dark mystical background are mentioned in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. They are symbols with deeper meanings. For instance, the goldfinch has been described as a sign of Christ’s suffering. The stork with a snake in its beak is an allegory of Christ overcoming evil, and the flowing water symbolizes divine grace.

John the Baptist stands and looks in the direction of the procession with the three kings approaching. The text on the scroll refers to the reason for the incarnation of the Son of Christ. At the feet and the head of the newborn, we are reminded by the goldfinch of the suffering of the Son of Christ.

Filippo Lippi ‘Adoration of the Child in the Forest'  detail: handle of the axe

The handle of the axe

The reason for the Passion can be read on the scroll: ECCE AGNUS DEI, which in English means ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ Through his death, the sins of humanity are removed, but the visitor to the chapel had already been pointed to this in the vestibule above the original entrance by the fresco depicting the Lamb of God. Filippo Lippi signed his altarpiece on the handle of the axe with FRATER PHILIPPVS P.

Gozzoli’s Lamb of God in situ      Vestibule of the chapel

Gozzoli 'Lamb of God' Cappella dei Magi

Continuation Florence day 6: Uccello, Andrea del Castagno: John Hawkwood, Niccolò da Tolentino I