Lippi, Filippino and the Strozzi Chapel (Santa Croce)

Santa Maria Novella            Cappella Maggiore

Santa Maria Novella interior
photo: Trevor Huxham

The Strozzi family was banished from Florence twice, in 1434 and again in 1458, by the mighty Medici family.  In 1466, Filippo returned to Florence as head of the Strozzi family. In order to restore the Strozzi’s tarnished reputation and image, he financed numerous projects that were carried out by artists. For example, Filippino Lippi had already worked for Strozzi before he started working on the frescoes in Filippo Strozzi’s Burial Chapel. In 1478, Strozzi bought the rights to the chapel, located to the right of the main chapel, from the Boni family. This was on condition that the titular saint of the Boni family, John the Evangelist, would be depicted.

Benedetto da Maiano ‘Filippo Strozzi’ terracotta
Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Benedetto da Maiano ‘Filippo Strozzi’ marble’     Musée du Louvre

On April 21, 1487 Filippino Lippi received the commission to decorate the Burial Chapel of the Strozzi. Lippi had just finished the work in the Brancacci Chapel. In his contract, the painter promised to complete the fresco cycle on March 1, 1490. However, its completion would be twelve years after the agreed date. In 1488 Filippino Lippi left for Rome to paint the chapel of Cardinal Carafa in the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. (Here at Web Gallery of Art you can see Lippi’s frescoes in the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and click here for the scheme of the fresco cycle in the Strozzi Chapel and). Lorenzo de Medici had recommended the painter Lippi to this influential cardinal in Rome. Lorenzo’s young son, Giovanni de Medici, later received the cardinal position at the very young age of thirteen, partly at the hands of Carafa. The Strozzis likely had little choice but to accept this course of events.

Benedetto da Maiano 'Filippo Strozzi' terracotta detail

Strozzi chapel      In situ

Strozzi chapel  (Santa Maria Novella)
Web Gallery of Art

Filippino Lippi ‘Apostles in landscape’ (Rome)
Santa Maria sopra Minerva Rome

While Lippi was working in Rome, a window was placed in the chapel in February 1489 to provide more light for the frescoes. In the same year, Lippi wrote a letter from Rome to Strozzi in which he told him that he would like to continue his work on the chapel of the Santa Maria Novella at the end of June. In his letter he points out to Strozzi that he was paid two hundred and fifty florins for his decorations of the altar for Carafa alone. Almost as much as he received for all the paintings in the Burial Chapell. Filippo Strozzi died in the year in which the painter should have finished his work. Filippo’s heirs concluded a second contract, with a new deadline: May 1498. The Strozzi family complained about the artist’s lack of progress in his work. Lippi’s defence was that he had received far too little money for the expensive pigments, especially the blue of azurite. The Strozzis submitted the matter to the guild of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali. The court of this guild ruled that the family had to pay a hundred florins to Filippino Lippi.

The date and signature 1502 can be seen on the right in The Raising of Drusiana, but also on the hem of the cloak of the dead boy in Saint Philip Driving the Dragon. A third signature can also be found on a cloak, namely on Mary’s in the stained-glass window above the altar. ‘Philip … deL …VitR … P.. i …G … V.’ This means ‘Philippus delineavit Vitrum … Patres in Gesuati…’ The monks of the Gesuati were skilled and well-known glassblowers. They made the stained-glass window after a design by Lippi, for which this artist received four florins.

References to the coat of arms of the Strozzis frequently appear, such as a falcon on a branch plucking its feathers, or the depicted coat of arms in the middle of the cross-ribbed vault.

Stories of the life of Philip, the patron saint of Filippo Strozzi, are painted on the right wall. Beneath the lunette is the story that is described in the Golden Legend (eng). Lippi painted an architectural background for his narrative cycle in the shallow and narrow chapel. In this way he transformed a Gothic chapel from 1279 into a Renaissance all’antica chapel. Many details and motifs, such as the lamps, consoles, masks and harpies, are derived from the Golden House of Nero. After the discovery of the Golden House, Filippino Lippi was the first to use motifs, the so-called grotesques, from this palace of Nero in Florence (motifs from the Domus Aurea, verso and recto; Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi 1637 E).

Saint Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis and the Crucifixion of Philip

According to the Golden Legend, one day the Apostle Philip went to Hierapolis to do his missionary work. In a temple dedicated to Mars, he cast a spell on a dragon.

Saint Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis      Zoom in      Priest
Young man poisoned by the pestilential smell

Filippino Lippi 'Saint Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis'

This demon had burst from its lair, in the pedestal of the statue, and spread a horrible, penetrating odour. The fumes were so disgusting and poisonous that the king’s son fell dead. He is depicted on the right, close to the dragon, where a man catches him. Lippi shows the statue of Mars within a large exedra. Two of the attendees protect themselves from the hellish scent by pinching their noses shut. The way Mars is painted makes it look more like a living pagan god than a statue made of stone. As agreed in the contract, the artist used two-thirds at the bottom of the wall to depict this story. Trophies are displayed above the cornice of the columns. Entirely at the top, two prisoners are held by winged personifications of Victory. In between are three lamps, each coming from the mouth of a putto. 

The illusion of a real space is created by placing a few figures at the bottom right and left of the image plane, in front of the fictive architectural frame.

Filippino Lippi Filippino Lippi 'Saint Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis' detail

People from the Middle East

The curved posture of one of the priests clearly shows that he didn’t appreciate Philip’s actions at all. On the upper right, God is depicted with a cross. It is His power that is greater than that of the pagans with their god of war. As you can see from the figures, Lippi’s interest is not in portraying different individuals, but rather in depicting the general atmosphere and the reactions of those present. Although the spectators, the priests and the apostle do differ in clothing, beards, skin colour and age, they are all interchangeable. Their clothing clearly indicates that we are dealing with people from the Middle East.

The exuberant architecture, such as the altar behind Mars, has also been used by a contemporary painter, Botticelli. The latter artist showed this in his ‘The Calumny of Apelles’ or ‘The Story of Lucretia’. The architect Giuliano da Sangallo and the painter Lippi used to have notebooks with sketches of famous antique arabesques, drolleries and all kinds of architectural details such as niches, columns, statues and broken pediments. These sketchbooks were a welcome source for many artists and were, of course, also used by Lippi himself.

Crucifixion of Philip       Soldiers

Filippino Lippi 'Crucifixion of Philip'

At the top of the lunette we see the crucifixion of the seventy-eight-year-old Saint Philip. The pagan priests, of course, could not tolerate the exorcism of the dragon and condemned the apostle to the same fate as the one whose word he proclaimed.

Saint John raises Drusiana from the Dead and The Martyrdom of Saint John

On the opposite wall, on the left when standing in front of the chapel, the order of the story about John is reversed. The chronology here runs not from bottom to top, but the other way around. Lippi probably did this to contrast the two related scenes on the side walls, namely the martyrdom of both saints. In the lunette, John is thrown into a tub of boiling oil, but that doesn’t seem to harm our saint. According to Da Voragine, writer of the Golden Legend, our brave and vigorous saint went to the island of Patmos after this trial. There he had a vision of The Doom of the World and The Last Judgment, as described in his Revelations. After Patmos and the revocation of his death sentence by Domitian, John returns to Ephesus. According to the story of Da Voragine, the running crowd cried out to him: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’

Saint John raises Drusiana from the Dead        Zoom in

Filippino Lippi 'Saint John raises Drusiana from the Dead'

As he entered the city, he saw a procession with the corpse of a woman named Drusiana, who had long been his most devoted friend. Giotto (Peruzzi Chapel) and later Donatello (Old Sacristy) had already depicted this event in Florence.

Like Giotto and Donatello, Lippi places the paso in the middle of the image plane and he too makes use of an architectural background. With Lippi, the architecture itself is not only very exuberant, but is clearly inspired by the classical architecture he saw in Rome. This is different from Donatello or Giotto, who placed the resurrection in a more subdued architectural setting. The theme of John returning to Ephesus after a long time had special significance for the commissioner. After all, Filippo Strozzi had also been banished from his native city, Florence, for years.  After thirty years the Strozzi returned to this city. The same goes for Jacob, who was painted in the vault as one of the four patriarchs. Jacob lost his birthright, had to work for Laban for years and eventually returned to his hometown as a wealthy man.

Saint John raises Drusiana from the Dead      Woman and Children      Study Bearer

Filippino Lippi Saint John raises Drusiana from the Dead detail

The altar wall and the sarcophagus of Filippo Strozzi

The altar wall is remarkable. Especially in comparison with the burial chapel of Sassetti in the church of Santa Trinita, for which Ghirlandaio painted a fresco cycle around 1485. There is no tomb on the side wall or in the floor as we have seen in the Santa Croce and the Sassetti Chapel, but there is a sarcophagus pontifically near the altar.

Altar Wall         Altar and tomb      Bottom view

Filippino Lippi Altar Wall     Strozzi chapel Florence
photo view: Diego Delso

Standing outside the chapel, the sarcophagus of black marble seems to be beneath the altar stone instead of behind it. Usually, a coffin in such a prominent place was only reserved for saints. In the arch directly above the altar we see a relief of Mary and child. Mary acted as a mediator between the dead and God the Father. The painted ‘triumphal arch’ appears to be an illusionistic extension of the tomb and it frames the window. Art historian Sale describes the altar wall as a porta coeli: a gateway to heaven or a triumphal arch for the victory of true faith with a place in heaven as a reward.

A possible source of inspiration for this brand new idea, could be Masaccio’s fresco near this chapel. All parts of the altar refer to the redemption of the soul of the deceased. Virtues such as faith and love can be seen, as well as angels carrying bones and skulls. The inscriptions refer to the unshakeable faith. All this fits in seamlessly with what can be seen on the side wall and the vaulting. For example, Drusiana’s miraculous resurrection from the dead is painted on the left wall; a subject that is, of course, very suitable for a burial chapel. The vaulting depicts Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. This episode was considered a prefiguration of the Crucifixion of Christ.

Abraham      Vault

Filippino Lippi  Abraham vault Strozzi chapel Florence

The altar wall is elaborately decorated with festive ornaments. It gives the impression of a true showpiece. Filippino was fond of displaying all the pomp and splendour. In 1491, for example, he designed the Triumphal Entry of Charles VII of France into Florence. Vasari also noticed this work. He wrote the following: ‘[…] with this talent for combining architecture, sculpture and painting, one might wonder what kind of design Filippino would have created for the competition of the facade of the Cathedral of Florence in 1491, where Filippo Strozzi still appeared as one of the judges.’ (cited from: Borsook, E., ‘The mural painters of Tuscany From Cimabue to Andrea del Sarto’, Clarendon Press Oxford 1980 (second edition, revised and enlarged) 124).

Martyrdom of John the  Evangelist

The contract states that the colour blue in the vault had to be cielo blue. This precious blue of azurite was indeed used, as a chemical analysis showed during the restoration. Filippino, however, used relatively little of this blue in the skies, probably to save money. This valuable pigment was mainly used for the robes, where it was mixed with white lime. Lippi only painted with azurite in dark blue areas. The gold mentioned in the contract was not only used for the halos, but also for highlights on bracelets or belts with beads, and for the rays that fall on the patriarchs. The splashes of fire near the tub in which our Saint John was boiled alive, are also of gold. Furthermore, gold was used for the pastework reliefs (pastiglia).

Filippino Lippi Martyrdom of John the  Evangelist detail

Filippino adhered to the agreement, which stated that painting should be done ‘in frescho’. This is the second example of such a contractual requirement (first for the adjoining main chapel of Tornabuoni). For example, the little boy on the left in the Crucifixion of Philip, along with the red cloak of the man protecting the boy, were painted in one day. Only a part of the hair has been applied a secco. The man trying to raise the cross with a stick was also executed in one day, together with the architectural background. The giornati in the lower part of the walls are smaller; after all, these parts are more noticeable than the upper sections. In The Raising of Drusiana, the head of the woman with children to the right of the paso, together with the head of the old woman, form a part of the same day. The giornati are cleverly harmonised; usually Lippi lets the sections overlap with the contours of a few limbs, or with a part of the architecture.

Filippino’s preference for rich details and shiny materials, such as jewels, copper cauldrons, weapons of soldiers, and his fast technique, remind one of Venetian painters like Veronese or Bassano.

Continuation Florence day 5: Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel I