Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.

Perhaps one of the greatest jewels of Western art, the Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence is famous for its cycle of frescoes by the Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli, painted in 1459-1461 for the Medici family, when they ruled over Florence. The chapel is located on the piano nobile of the palace, designed by Michelozzo. Benozzo Gozzoli, the greatest among Fra Angelico's followers painted this cycle over three walls: the Journey of the Magi to Bethelehem shows each of the Three Magi on their way to see the Nativity of Jesus. The religious theme was combined with depictions of several members of the great House of Medici and their allies, as well as some important people who arrived in town for the "Council of Florence” (1438-39) some decades earlier. On that occasion the Medici could boast to have facilitated the reconciliation between the Catholic and the Byzantine churches. It is also an interesting comparison of how the most refined people on earth at the time: the Florentines and the Byzantines admired and impressed each other.

In the apse, the sides walls are painted with saints and angels in adoration, where Gozzoli followed the style of his master, Fra Angelico. The angels are both adoring and singing to the Adoration altarpiece, acknowledging the solemnity of the the birth of Christ but also singing its glory.

The altarpiece, Filippo Lippi's Adoration of the Christ Child, is now in Berlin, replaced by a copy by a follower of the artist.  It follows the theme of the rest of the chapel, as this is also set in a Renaissance almost magical wood. God the Father is pleased by his work, John the Baptist, give thanks for the birth of his mystical brother and the Virgin prays before the holy fruit of her womb.

There are also three narrow vertical fresco sections showing the shepherds of the nativity. The lively colors and detail of the frescoes are re-echoed by the precious mosaics of the pavement, the gilded ceiling and the wooden stalls designed by Giuliano da Sangallo. The woodwork is quite elaborate, in gives movement to the originally Gothic decoration in the way only the Renaissance can.

Gozzoli portrayed rich Tuscan landscapes, probably influenced by Early Netherlandish artists - perhaps via tapestries, an essential collectible item in Renaissance Florence. 

There are also fascinating hunting and live nature scenes scattered through what is actually the main "plot". These were both common themes at the time for the decoration of a gentleman's palazzo or chapel. It would made one thing of Paolo Ucello's works. Whereas on one side these scenes can be brutal, they can also be quite gentle, like the birds bathing in the little pond.

Members of the Medici family and their entourage are shown riding in the foreground of the fresco on the east wall. Caspar, the youngest Magus, leads the procession on a white horse - this figure has often been taken for Lorenzo il Magnifico, who was born in 1449 and so was still a boy when the fresco was completed; he is more likely portrayed by another figure.

Closely following Caspar are the contemporary head of the family, Piero the Gouty, on a white horse and devout family founder Cosimo on a humble donkey. Then comes Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, respectively lord of Rimini and Milan: they did not take part in the Council, but were guests of the Medici in Florence in the time the frescoes were executed.

A procession of illustrious Florentines follows, here are the humanists Marsilio Ficino and the Pulci brothers, the members of the Art Guilds and Benozzo himself. The painter looks out at the viewer and can be recognized for the scroll on his red hat, reading Opus Benotii. 

Little Lorenzo il Magnifico is the boy directly below him with the distinctive snub nose; Lorenzo's elder brother Giuliano is next to him. The procession continues on the other wall: Bearded Balthasar, the middle Magus is riding another white horse. He is portrayed as Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. 

It was once thought that the three pages behind him represented Piero's daughters, but were probably only secondary members of the family.

Melchior, the oldest Magi, rides on the west wall. Traditionally, his features have been read as those of Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, who died in Florence during the Council; but they could also be those of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, who helped end the Great Schism by convoking the Council of Constance in 1414. 

Like Cosimo, he is shown as a peacemaker riding on a donkey. He is preceded by a page dressed in blue with a leopard, on his horse.

Sassetti Chapel - Santa Trinita, Florence.

The Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita Basilica in Florence is especially notable for Domenico Ghirlandaio's masterwork: a series of frescoes representing stories from the life of St. Francis.

The chapel was aquired by Francesco Sassetti in 1478 as he wanted to create a chapel dedicated to his namesake saint but was previously denied a space in the Dominican Basilica of Santa Maria Novella where his family had had a chapel - also decorated by Ghirlandaio: the Tornabuoni chapel.

He commissioned the decoration of the chapel from the most known artist in Florence at the time: Domenico Ghirlandaio, next to the altarpiece are the portraits of the donor and his wife. Works in the chapel begun in 1483 and finished in 1486 - the altarpiece Adoration of the Shepherds is dated 1485.

Ghirlandaio portrayed several popular people in the frescoes and the altarpiece is particularly relevant as he took inspiration from the Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes - hence the clear Flemish influence.

The chapel as the church which hosts it is gothic in shape and the decoration is divided into six main scenes, the ceiling and the altarpiece. Everything is sorrounded by fictive architectural elements.
The main cycle of frescoes which represents stories from the life of St. Francis is divided into six scenes:

-Renunciation of Worldly Goods: The scene portrays a young Francis who removes his clothes and gives up all his posessions publicly while being protected by the Bishop of Perugia. The scene is set in Geneva or Lyon where the Sassetti Family had served for the Medici. The secondary figures may be Ghirlandaio's brothers and apprentices.

-The Confirmation of the Rule: This scene represents the recognition of Francis' order by Pope Honorius III in St. John Lateran in Rome. Though the background is a view of Florence: Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria can be seen. This represents a view of Florence as the new 'Rome'. Lorenzo de Medici who raises his hand to Angelo Poliziano (the tutor of his sons) and the future Pope Leo X can be seen in the scene as well as the Gonfalonier Pucci and old members of the Medici family who are being indicated by Sassetti: they are Cosimo, Galeazzo and Teodoro. This is a very important source of what important Florentine people in the XV century looked like, because unlike in Botticelli's work they are not stylized or idealized.


-The Test of Fire: This scene portrays St. Francis preaching to the Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil, who asked him to walk over a fire to demonstrate his sanctity. This scene is very similar to the Giotto one in Santa Croce, though Ghirlandaio introduces an innovation which is a figure in the foreground whose back is to the observer.

-The Miracle of the Stigmata: This scene represents St. Francis kneeling receiving the divine sign from a crucifix sorrounded by cherubims. This work also features similar iconography to the Giotto's one in Santa Croce. This miracle occurred at La Verna and its castles can be seen in the background. The city on the right, near the lake is an ideal representation of Pisa.


-The Death of St. Francis: This powerful scene shows the dead saint lying on a catafalque in the middle of an ideal Renaissance church, sorrounded by several figures. Also this scene is clearly inspired by a similar work in Santa Croce by Giotto though Ghirlandaio added other elements such as the background and the strong sense of pathos. This scene also reminds of a similar work by Ghirlandaio in San Gimignano: Le esequie di Santa Fina. The three people on the right are probably connected to the Sassetti family and Poliziano is portrayed together with Bartolomeo Fonzio.


-The Resurrection of the Boy: This scene portrayes a different sort of scene - a posthumous one which was connected to the Sassetti family and therefore located in a central position. It is not in chronological order with the death of Saint Franics but it protrays the resurrection of a boy who had died falling from Palazzo Spini Feroni, a palace which used to face Santa Trinita. According to some scholars Ghirlandaio was inspired by Masaccio's The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel. The boy is in the center on a bed covered with Eastern-style drapes, Saint Francis blesses him from the sky. The five women on the left are probably Sassetti's daughters, their husbands and fiancées can also be seen in the foreground. The last man in the first left row is Ghirlandaio himself. The presence of a Moorish female servant is also interesting. Among others portrayed there are members of the Albizzi and Strozzi families and Poliziano and Fonzio. The scene is also interesting because it shows the old Romanesque façade of Santa Trinita and the Palazzo Spini Feroni in front of it - in the background also an undecorated Ponte Santa Trinita. 


-The ceiling is divided into four parts and each of the four parts has a representation of a sybil.

-The altarpiece: The Adoration of the Shepherds was painted in 1485. It is recognized as one of the greatest works by Ghirlandaio and it clearly shows the Flemish influence of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes which had been taken to Florence in 1483. This work is therefore very realistic. The frame has the inscription "Ipsum quem genuit adoravit Maria" ("The one giving adoration to Mary"), probably a reference to Ghirlandaio himself. The attention to detail is also very important since every object has a precise symbolic  role, the background with the city of Jerusalem in front of a dead tree represents its conquest. The city on the left represents Rome - Florence is the new Rome. The altarpiece is flanked by the two kneeling portraits of the donors. The scene is set on a flowering lawn, with Mary to the left foreground, kneeling in front of the Child. The manger, before which the Child lies, is an ancient Roman sarcophagus with the inscription "Ense cadens soly mo Pompei Fulvi[us] augur Numen aitquae me conteg[it] urna dabit", an allusion of the coming of Christ through the prophecy of Fulvius, killed by Pompey the Great during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. The prophecy said that from the sarcophagus housing his remains a God will rise, a reference to the victory of Christianity over Paganism. Next to Mary is St. Joseph looking upwards as, in the background, an angel is announcing to the shepherds the coming of Christ, while on the left, the long procession of the Magi is passing under a triumphal arch. The arch has the inscription: "Gn[eo] Pompeo Magno Hircanus Pont[ifex] P[osuit]" ("The priest Hircanus erected [this arch] in honor of Gnaius Pompey the Great"). On the left, the two nearest Magi are staring at a light visible from above the hut's roof, coming perhaps from the star. Behind the sarcophagus are an ox and a donkey, symbols of the Jews and the Gentiles. The three rocks in the very foreground are a hint to the Sassetti, whose name in Italian means "Small rocks". Perched on one of them is a goldfinch, symbol of Christ's Passion and resurrection.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A hidden Renaissance gem in Rome just above the Spanish Steps: the Guerrieri Chapel

Perhaps one of the lesser known Renaissance works is the Guerrieri Chapel on the renowned church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti on the Spanish Steps. The church's construction began in 1494 when Pope Alexander VI granted the land to the Mirmite Friars, later it was enlarged by King Louis XII of France to celebrate the successful invasion of Naples. Some French Gothic elements from the first church, such as the crossing, still survive. However, that one particular treasure about this church is the Guerrieri Chapel. The chapel was established in 1513 and given to Melchiorre Guerrieri, a Neapolitan nobleman and Apostolic Chancellor. It is decorated by frescoes that have been attributed to the workshop of Perugino, the great Umbrian Renaissance painter and master of Raphael, as well as the author of three superb frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The decoration began in 1525 and the scenes, set in an imaginary loggia, represent major scenes from the Christian calendar, such as the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Pentecost, interestingly enough, and in true pre-Counter-Reformation style the Passion takes a relatively secondary role in this cycle and can be found in the above monochromatic frieze, the scenes are fifteen and represent the whole of of Christ's Calvary. The lunettes are decorated with major episodes regarding the Incarnation of Our Lord: the Nativity, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. On the ceiling, there is an interesting, but not so uncommon iconographical scheme, instead of the Evangelists, there are the main four Doctors of the Church: Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine of Hippo.

The first scene is the Resurrection of Christ, in the traditional Renaissance manner, Christ is triumphantly and symbolically "ejecting" himself from the sepulchre in an action filled with glory and splendour, symbolising the completion of His original message, he is holding the banner of truth, the banner of victory, the banner of glory and he is filled with light, with the light of triumph and of hope and angels all around him are praising and singing hosannah to the risen king, meanwhile the guards, dressed in splendid contemporary (Renaissance) uniforms are still resting or just going to wake up, the background is a rather common bucolic mix of Italian countryside, hills and mountains. In the monochrome frieze we can spot scenes from the Passion, now overcome, among them a rendition of the Last Supper is rather striking, Christ's sacrifice is now completed and ready to be fulfilled in its entirety on the nearby altar. 

This scene is the Ascension of Christ who rather harmoniously has taken place in his heavenly throne, a great golden mandorla surrounded by cherubim adoring him and by seraphim playing trumpets and singing incessant hymns of praise to Him and to this glorious process in which Christ "goes up with a merry song" but still gives us a sense that he is now up, so that he is not here anymore as a comforter or a friend or a teacher, but as God, full of glory, full of power, to love us even more. Even the trees are flourish before this glorious scene of heavenly enthronement. In the monochromatic frieze are scenes such as the mocking of Christ and his Flagellation, it is interesting to compare the two: the one God that humiliated himself for us, now rules over us all from the apex of heaven.

This scene represents the Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit and the the birth of the Church, together with the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ and of the altar, this is that moment in the the Holy Scripture that symbolises His true presence in the sacraments and in this way he validates the future ones to come, this is the first ordination. In iconographical terms, it is important to notice how Mary takes precedence as Queen of heaven, in a glorious yet humble way she receives the gift of the Spirit, symbolised by several "tongues of fire", around her are all the apostles, incredule and joyful to receive yet one more gift from heaven. Above is the Holy Spirit, in its traditional dove iconography, the dove in glory is in his mandorla and surrounded by cherubim. On the monochrome frieze are scenes from the Calvary and finally the Crucifixion and the Deposition.

On the left lunette is a rather traditional rendition of the Nativity, with somewhat of a Northern or Florentine feel as the ox and ass are in a sort of a manger, Christ is lying on the ground without a cradle, to symbolise that somewhat he is already aware of what is to be, of who he is while also underlining the vulnerability of the child he is. Saint Joseph is respectfully admiring and adoring the whole scene behind the tree that holds the crib together, to leave Mary and Jesus symbolically together, in the Italian fashion the Nativity is set inside of a brick-building.

It is here that the whole story of humankind and the whole story of the Incarnation begins; with the Archangel Gabriel bringing a special news to Our Lady. Saint Gabriel is in his tradition golden garments, he is holding a branch of fleur-de-lys that represent Mary's perpetual virginity while he is pointing heavenwards with his right hand, delivering that most important message from heaven. In between them there is a window, it is traditional in iconographical terms that there is always an "obstacle" between Mary and Gabriel. Mary was just reading the Scriptures on her desk while she is caught, she is surprised, she is shocked but eventually she realises what great gift has been bestowed upon her and therefore she bends and pronounces be it unto me according to thy word. The message is being delivered to her through the Holy Spirit's dove, flying just next to her, it is a very fluid movement: God being pointed at by the angel through whom he speaks, again, through the Holy Spirit, becomes incarnate in Our Lady, through the Son. This is the message of Salvation which will eventually be completed right under this lunette in the glorious Resurrection.

The last scene is the Adoration of the Magi, who even in their rich garments and precious gifts have the time and sweetness to acknowledge that little, vulnerable child who is playing and sweetly tries to catch the king's gift. It is an incredible intense movement, while at the same time it is the first manifestation of devotion towards the Lord, it is the moment in which Christ truly passes from Mary's womb to the people of the earth's hearts and devotion.

In the ceiling, there are the four Doctors of the Church, traditionally divided into the four sections of the rib vault. On the bottom is Saint Gregory the Great, recognisable for his tiara and for the dove of the Holy Spirit whispering into his ear. On the left is Saint Jerome, again a rather famous iconography: his Cardinal hat, the lion and the stone - he is dressed as a bishop, as he happened to be a Cardinal. On top is Saint Ambrose holding a whip as a symbol of his work against the Arian heresy in the City of Milan, described in Saint Augustine's Confessions. Finally on the right is Saint Augustine himself, depicted as an elderly man, on the left hand he is holding an open book and on the other a pen, as a symbol of his vast literary career. At his feet are the mitre as a symbol of humility, he is wearing episcopal garments and we can notice that underneath it is an Augustinian habit, whom they have always regarded as their founder.