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 portrays 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 portrays 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.