(b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)

Apse fresco

c. 1471
Parish Church of Sant'Andrea, Cercina

Ghirlandaio's earliest surviving work can be found in a parish church close to Florence. In 1471, he painted a fresco in a side apse of the small parish church of Sant'Andrea in the town of Cercina. Within the small space of the apse he created an illusory architectural setting consisting of three niches separated by Corinthian pilasters. In the centre niche Saint Barbara is standing on the body of her father, who has been struck down by lightning. On either side of her are Saints Jerome and Anthony. Everything is arranged to highlight the female saint. The gentle colours in which she is depicted, purple and a light, almost violet red, harmonize her with the golden orange of the capitals and upper part of the apse. The large square under her niche is also painted in a reddish brown imitation marble to emphasize the central axis, while the squares on either side correspond to the muted colours of the two hermits.

In this fresco, the young Ghirlandaio was playing with illusionistic techniques in order to prove what he and his art were capable of. The shadows cast by the figures suggest they are standing freely in the niches; the figures are not rigid, and their movements and their physical presence expands the space they seem to occupy. Here painting is becoming three-dimensional, the figures free to move.

Saint Anthony is marking the outer border of his niche with his staff and is not venturing across it. In contrast, Saint Jerome, cautiously taking a step forward, is feeling his way onto the painted cornice with his bare toes. In this detail the artist is not only creating a spatial effect, he is also adding a tactile element that is reminiscent of Flemish painting - in Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, painted in 1432, Adam and Eve are taking a step forward in their niches. There is, however, a more immediate model for Saint Jerome's posture and physical stature: a fresco by Domenico Veneziano, painted after 1455, in the Florentine monastery of Santa Croce, in which Saint John the Baptist is depicted in a similar manner.

The hands of Saint Barbara's father, who has been struck down for having his daughter killed because of her Christian beliefs, are casting shadows on the cornice underneath. The hands appear to be projecting right out of the niche into real space, an impression that raises the question of whether these figures are painted or sculpted. Such illusionistic methods of depiction lead us to assume that there was competition between the arts. A few years later, Andrea del Verrocchio extended the "play" between the internal and external in sculpture on the façade of the shrine of Orsanmichele in Florence, by placing the figure of Doubting Thomas at very front of the niche in which Christ stands.