Orcagna, Nardo di Cione and the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel (Santa Maria Novella)

The facade of the Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella facade
photo: Diego Delso

View of the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel in the side aisle of Santa Maria Novella

View Strozzi di Mantova Chapel Santa Maria Novella

At the head of the left transept, the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel contains work by Orcagna and his brother Nardo di Cione from the middle of the Trecento. The other Strozzi Chapel is located directly to the left of the main chapel and was painted between 1487 and 1502 by Filippino Lippi.

Crivelli ‘Thomas Aquinas’ 1476

The Strozzi di Mantova Chapel was built between 1340 and 1350. Orcagna painted the large altarpiece and his brother painted the frescoes on the walls. Andrea Orcagna was the most important young painter who emerged after 1340. He painted his most significant work for this chapel. It is an altarpiece depicting the Enthroned Redeemer and saints. The work is dated 1357 and signed. The paintings on the walls behind and next to this large altarpiece are: The Last Judgement and Resurrection behind the altarpiece; on the left wall the Paradise with a triumphant Christ and Mary and on the right Hell. Some family members can also be seen in these frescoes. Naturally, the whole ensemble fits perfectly with a burial chapel. After all, the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas received the ecclesiastical doctrine from the hands of Christ. A doctrine that was defended tooth and nail by the Dominicans. The monks of this church could therefore be satisfied.

The subject of the altarpiece is really new, at least for the retables from Florence and Siena. To depict an adult Christ in full length is highly unusual. This also applies to the spreading of Christian doctrine and the granting of ecclesiastical authority. Christ nearly always appeared as a child in the arms or on the lap of his mother. He was shown as Man of Sorrows, but in a predella. Before 1300, before Giotto, God sometimes appeared as a triumphant on a throne. These works from the Dugento also often depict intercessors next to God. Orcagna’s Christ goes back to the tradition from Rome before 1300, especially that of the papal court.

Andrea Orcagna Strozzi Altarpiece 1354 – 1357

Andrea Orcagna Strozzi Altarpiece
Web Gallery of Art
Andrea Orcagna Strozzi Altarpiece detail: Aquinas Mary

Thomas Aquinas and Peter

Orcagna’s Christ as Savior looks implacable and strict. It resembles a vision. Christ is in a mandorla of seraphim. High above it all, frontally, Christ sits in a rigid posture. His fiery eyes don’t really seem to be looking. A little lower, Mary stands to the right of Christ and to the left John the Baptist. Mary introduces the kneeling Dominic to Christ. Furthermore we see John, Peter, the founder of the church, and the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas. This theologian is bestowed with the book of the Christian doctrine and Peter receives the keys. In this way, it is emphasized again that God is the source of the church and ecclesiastical doctrine. Both figures are the tools of God to proclaim salvation.

The predella has three scenes that emphasize the importance of the church and the sacraments. On the left side, it depicts the Mass of Thomas Aquinas, in the middle the apostles’ ship (detail) and, on the right, scenes from the life of Peter.

The subject as well as the style go back to the Dugento. For example, it barely suggests depth. The golden background, the tight hierarchy and the staring gaze of Christ give the impression of an icon. The draperies appear to be painted by Giotto. Yet there is an essential difference. Giotto created the illusion that there were actual bodies underneath the clothes. Orcagna’s figures seem rather flat, as if one of the three dimensions is missing. Also the way in which the figures overlap, hardly creates depth. By depicting the figures only frontal or in profile, the effect of flatness is further enhanced. Even in the predella, despite the displayed architecture, there is almost no depth to be seen. It is about the message: a divine one in which the human is not involved. What a difference with Giotto or Taddeo Gaddi! Yet the style of Orcagna is not a complete rejection of that of Giotto. The way in which Mary is pointing at God and how Laurence is looking at Paul, reveal that Orcagna still used elements from Giotto’s work, but more in the style of the young Giotto who painted the altarpiece of the Ognissanti and not like the older Giotto who worked in Padua or in the Santa Croce.

Giotto (workshop) ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ 1328 – 1335       Mary and Christ

Giotto (workshop) 'Coronation of the Virgin' altarpiece

The altarpiece is a polyptych (five panels), but the columns in between are omitted. This was unusual. However, the columns are suggested by the capitals and the shafts in the spandrels and bases at the bottom. In the altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin in the Baroncelli Chapel, done by Giotto’s studio, the panels are clearly demarcated by columns. Even the rational framework of a Gothic altarpiece has been changed by Orcagna. The fields above the pointed arch are decorated with gilded flowers and other refined ornaments. These are very similar to the decorations on the cloaks of Laurence, Catherine and the four angels. As a result, parts of the painted area are repeated in the frame. In the central panel, two protruding lobes can be seen near the pinnacles. This shape is more or less a repetition of Christ’s crown.

Andrea Orcagna Strozzi Altarpiece  detail: Aquinas God Peter

The right panel of the predella shows the saving of the soul of Emperor Henry II. Because of his donation of a golden chalice, the scales tip in the right direction.

Zoom in (detail)

Andrea Orcagna Strozzi Altarpiece: predella

View of the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel

In 1355, the Strozzi family was granted the right to their own chapel in the left transept. Important Strozzi family members were buried in the chapel. The burial chamber is located under the stairs, the chapel itself is above it. The family paid for the furnishings, the altarpiece and the frescoes. Originally, tombs were not allowed in the Santa Maria Novella. This explains why there are so many tombs in the facade and around the cemetery.

They now accepted a chapel in which even women could be buried. Normally this was not allowed in the choir section. Moreover, Tommaso di Rosselino Strozzi was able to have his say on the paintings in the chapel. Tomasso’s namesaint, Thomas Aquinas, to whom the chapel is dedicated, kneels before God. His influence can be seen even more clearly in the predella.

The depiction of such a story in an altarpiece is so remarkable that it must have been painted at the insistence of the Strozzi. The Strozzis were merchant-bankers and as a result, this family had made usurious profits. This had caused a conflict and a long-standing legal battle in Florence. This battle around the Strozzis was just going on when the chapel was being decorated. The Strozzis did not give a golden chalice like Henry II (predella left detail), but a chapel, an altarpiece and frescoes in the hope of saving their souls.

View of the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel

Continuation Florence day 5: Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ (Santa Maria Novella) I