The Tornabuoni Chapel - Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Located in the apse of the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, The Tornabuoni Chapel is renowned for it famous cycle of frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop, executed between 1485 and 1490. The chapel was originally decorated in the mid-XIV century by Andrea Orcagna - a famous student of Pisano and Giotto who worked on several works in Florence. Some remains of these paintings were found during the restorations of the 1940s - these included figures of the Old Testament. Some can now be seen in the Museum of the Church. In the end of the XV century the state of the Orcagna's frescoes was pretty bad - the Sassetti, one of the most prominent families of Florence who were allies of the Medici, had long held the right to decorate the high altar, while the walls of the chapel had been assigned to the Ricci Family. Unfortunately the Ricci never recovered from their bankruptcy in 1348 and so they sold their rights to the Sassetti. Francesco Sassetti wanted the new frescoes to portray the life of St. Francis but the Dominican order which owned the church refused. Therefore Sassetti moved the commission to Santa Trinita, where Ghirlandaio executed one of his masterpieces: the Sassetti Chapel. Finally the rights of the chapel in Santa Maria Novella were sold to the Tornabuoni. However, Ghirlandaio who had then the largest workshop in Florence did not lose the commission and on September 1, 1485 he received the order to paint the main chapel with lives of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, patron of the Tornabuoni family and the city of Florence. Ghirlandaio worked on the frescoes from 1485 to 1490 with the help of his workshop including his famous family and also with a young Michelangelo Buonarroti! The stained glass windows were also executed according to Ghirlandaio's design. The entire chapel was completed with a glorious altarpiece portraying the Madonna del Latte in Glory with Angel and Saints, flanked by two panels with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Lawrence. On the recto a Resurrection of Christ was painted. This work is now held divided between the museums of Berlin and Munich. The cycle portrays on three walls the Life of the Virgin and the Life of St. John the Baptist. The chancel wall has a large stained glass window of three lights, provided in 1492 by Alessandro Agolanti after Ghirlandaio's design. On the lower part of the wall is a donor portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni and his wife Francesca Pitti, while on either side of the window are four smaller scenes portraying Dominican saints. Above the window is another large lunette, containing the Coronation of the Virgin. In the vault are depicted the Four Evangelists. The pathos in these dynamic scenes varies incredibly: from the pain of the Massacre of the Innocents, to the dramatic moment of the Visitation or the gentleness of Mary's birth.

Scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Expulsion of Joachim

The first episode represents the expulsion of Joachim, the father of Mary from the Temple of Jerusalem. Ghirlandaio set the scene in a sumptuous loggia of Greek cross plan with a sequence of arches in the background - there is an octagonal altar in the middle, where the sacrificial fire is lit. The light is as though as if it comes from the real windows of the church. The scene includes two groups of Florentine people - they wear contemporary clothes. The figures on the left represent Lorenzo Tornabuoni (son of the patron) and Piero with Lorenzo de Medici. In the right hand group there is the patron's family. The loggia and the background could represent the nearby Ospedale di San Paolo - it is a classic XV century Florentine loggia.

Nativity of Mary

The second scene portrays the Nativity of Mary - it is set in a luxurious room with inlaid wooden panelling and a frieze with music-making putts and a cornice with winged cherubs. On the left - at the top of the stairs there is a symbolic representation of an early incident in the story: the embrace of Anne and Joachim at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. To the right, St. Anne lays in the bed while three young women prepare a bath to the new-born Mary. The nurse who is pouring the water is the only figure who moves rapidly, but still rather gently. Her flowing robes are an iconic motif that was very popular in the Renaissance. There seems to be a sense of awe and acknowledgement that the Mother of God is being born. A preparatory drawing of this woman can be found in the Uffizi. In the scene there is a group of several well-dressed Florentine ladies who have come to pay homage to Mary - the first in the procession is Ludovica, Giovanni Tornabuoni’s daughter. The rendering of her clothes is particularly refined. The scene is considered to be one of the best in the chapel. In the background there is an inscription that reads: "NATIVITAS TUA DEI GENITRIX VIRGO GAUDIUM ANNUNTIAVIT UNIVERSO MUNDO" ("Your birth, oh Virgin Mother, announced joy to the whole universe"), while in th intarsia decoration the artist put his signature: "BIGHORDI" (his true surname, Bigordi) and "GRILLANDAI" (the Florentine version of his nickname). Also in this scene the light is very realistic. The architecture is rather asymmetrical and it can be linked to the scene of the Visitation where a wall is placed to divide the space in the same manner.

Presentation at the Temple

This is quite a complex composition, the characters are placed on different levels. In the centre, the young Mary is holding a book and is ascending on a staircase towards the priest but is looking outward. Her strange posture is perhaps given by her youthful shyness. The Presentation is a complex composition, with numerous characters placed on different levels. In the centre, the young Mary, holding a book, is ascending the Temple's staircase towards the priest, but is looking in the viewer's direction. Her awkward posture is perhaps intended to suggest her young shyness. The role of most figures in the crowd is still quite unclear. Most are probably portraits of contemporary people. The figures of St.s Anne and Joachim are distinguishable by the aureolas - they point at their daughter. The other characters have not yet been identified. The two children in the foreground may look like small adults but this is a technical trick by Ghirlandaio - from the ground they look young.

Marriage of the Virgin

The marriage of the Virgin is set in a beautiful Florentine Renaissance architecture but its composition is still somewhat traditional. In the centre of the scene is the priest, with the same features of the one in the presentation. He is sealing the marriage between Joseph and Mary, in the sides there are two processions: men on the left and women on the right. Some men are quite angry they had not be chosen to marry Mary, hence they break their sticks or raise their fists. A preparatory sketch for this scene is located in the archive of the Uffizi Gallery.

Adoration of the Magi

This scene resembles very much the other version of the Adoration of the Magi in the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita - also by Ghirlandaio. For example the ruins and the hills where the processing Magis are. It is quite damaged unfortunately. In the centre there are Mary and Child Jesus framed by the inscription: CAES[AR] AUGUSTO XXXVIII AP. The Magi are finely executed: the younger one on the left in particular, who is already taking off his crown as a sign of humility. The peacock on the arch is a symbol of the Resurrection. The men on the right are portraits of contemporary people. In the procession in the righthand hill there is a giraffe - they had been presented to Lorenzo de Medici in 1486. There is also a similar one in the Carafa Chapel by Filippino Lippi in Rome.

Massacre of the Innocents

According to Vasari, the great chronicler of the Renaissance, this was the best scene in the cycle due to its dramatic composition. Ghirlandaio was probably inspired by the ancient Roman bas-reliefs. In the foreground there are two mothers fighting to save their babies - the one in the left is escaping from a horseman. The other on the right grasps the hair of the soldier who holds her child. The colors are incredibly vivid. On the ground there are the corpses of several children, either bleeding or with severed body parts. Behind this, on the right, the soldiers attack their mothers, a soldier is falling from a horse. Some people on the terraces on the two buildings on the sides are viewing the horrible scene. At the centre there is a triumphal arch.

Death and Assumption of the Virgin

The left wall culminates in a large lunette with the Death and the Assumption of Mary. The body of the Virgin lays on a lawn and it is surrounded by the Twelve Apostles who kiss her feet, cry and pray. Angels are holding torches and one of the apostles holds a palm branch as a symbol of Resurrection. In the upper part of the fresco, the Virgin is again young, beautiful and attractive and it is inside a mandorla supported by angels. God welcomes her. In the background there are some hills with castles, fortresses and the Villa Medici in Fiesole. 

The story of Mary ends in the central wall's lunette with the Coronation of the Virgin.

The cycle joins that of John the Baptist in the scene of the Visitation.

Scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist

Apparition of the Angel to Zechariah

This is one of the best scenes in the cycle. It represents the apparition of the Angel to Zechariah which is portrayed inside of a magnificent Renaissance building. Zachariah is portrayed on the altar in the centre with the Angel Gabriel who appears on the left to announce him the coming of his son. The scene is crowded with six groups of characters divided on six levels. There is a group of maidens on the right, the others are portraits of contemporary Florentines. On the lower left there are Renaissance humanists such as Cristoforo Landino (the one with a black collar) and Agnolo Poliziano (the second from the right). The other figures standing on the right are relatives of the patron, behind them a self-portrait of Ghirlandaio, the second from the right is probably his brother or son. An inscription on the arch at the left celebrates the completion of the cycle in 1490 and has a quote by Poliziano. The altar resembles the one in Leonardo’s Annunciation.


This scene portrays the meeting of Mary with an elderly Elizabeth - the composition is rather complex and it is centred on the key episode - its importance is strengthened by the walls which converge on the scene. Elizabeth is followed by two maidens , on the two sides there are other groups of women. The group on the right includes portraits of contemporaries such as Giovanna degli Albizzi who had married the patron’s son. The background is rather fine and it shows the influence of classical art and the Flemish masters. There is an ancient building on the right, while the landscape is typical of Early Flemish works. The balcony in the middle with two young men is probably a reference to Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin or Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke painting the Madonna. The city in the background is fanciful but there are existing details such as the Palazzo Vecchio and the campanile of Santa Maria Novella, as well as the Colosseum. All the elements were required by Tornabuoni.

Birth of the Baptist

This scene is linked with that in the opposite wall representing the Birth of the Virgin. They both share the same composition with the bed placed symmetrically. This room is less luxurious than the other, but it still portrays a then upper class Florentine room. The light falls on the figures in the foreground, the others are partially in the shade. Elizabeth is portrayed on the bed in a solemn posture, with a book in her left hand. The two nurses wear bright colors in order to attract the watcher’s attention. Three women are visiting Elizabeth: the first who is luxuriously dressed might be a relative of the Tornabuoni, the older of the other two is probably Lucrezia Tornabuoni (Giovanni’s sister) who had recently died. The maid entering the room from the right with a basket of fruit on her head is very similar to the nymphs in Botticelli’s Primavera and the Salome painted by Lippi in Prato Cathedral. The attention to the detail of the different objects shows the influence of the Flemish school which was very popular in Tuscany during this period. The most interesting objects are: the two bottles of wine and water held by the maid, the bed-frame with a vase and the two pomegranates over the bed.

Zechariah Writes John's Name

This scene represents the moment when Zechariah who became mute writes the name of his son on a sheet of paper. It is set in a large portico opened on a glorious landscape, the perspective is rather good. The main scene is in the centre, Zechariah is sitting and looking at his son, held by Elizabeth. The figures are symmetrically placed so that the child appears in the middle of the composition, aligned with the pilaster of the portico. Sketches of this scene are in the Uffizi.

John preaches in the wilderness

John the Baptist is portrayed in the centre, on a rock, preaching to a crowd. He wears the camel skins mentioned in the Gospels and is pointing at the cross. Jesus is listening to him and can be seen in the upper left corner. As usual with Ghirlandaio, there is a group of women on the left - the woman sitting in the centre and the child at John’s feet are quite refined.

Baptism of Christ

The scene of the Baptism follows a traditional scheme, the naked man resembles the one by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel, Christ is similar to that by Vercocchio and Leonardo at the Uffizi or to that by a younger Ghirlandaio in the church of Sant’Andrea in San Donnino, near Florence. The figure of the kneeling man on the right is rather notable - he is removing his shoes while and is curious about what is happening in the scene. The traditional portrayal of God giving his blessing between angels is quasi-Late Gothic. The landscape in the background is divided by a spur that creates a frame around Christ. 

Herod's Banquet

This dramatic scene concludes the story of St. John the Baptist. It is set in a majestic classical hall with a painted arch. The vault resembles that of the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The two tables along the side underline the perspective of the work. Men sit at the left, men at the right. Behind the women there is a group of musicians. At the center of the table there is Herd, there is an open window behind him. Salome is in the foreground, she is dancing. Other men, including a dwarf are looking on the left where a servant is handing over John’s head to Herod. A man is clearly disgusted. The scene is inspired by that of Lippi in Prato Cathedral but is less dramatic. 

Central wall

On the middle wall are portrayed the following scenes:

The patrons in prayer: Giovanni Tornabuoni

The patrons in prayer: Francesca Pitti


Saint Dominic tests books in the fire

Saint John in the Desert

Martyrdom of Saint Peter the Martyr


In the vault are four Evangelists portraits: they write or show their work (apart St. Mark, who is cutting his pen with a knife), flanked by their symbols.

-St. John the Evangelist
-St. Matthew
-St. Luke
-St. Mark

As in the Sassetti Chapel, and despite being distant from the viewer, the paintings are very well executed, being largely by Ghirlandaio himself. This can be seen, for example, in the realistic rendering of Luke's ox.


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