Frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel of the Santa Maria Novella (1486-90)
by Domenico GHIRLANDAIO

Even before Ghirlandaio had finished the ensemble in the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinità, it was already attracting members of the Florentine upper class who were deeply impressed. So before work in the chapel was completed, Ghirandaion was commissioned to carry out another large-scale project. His task was now to paint the apsidal chapel of Santa Maria Novella. On 1 September 1484, he and his brother Davide signed a contract with Giovanni Tornabuoni, a man whose wealth, power and noble descent ensured his position at the side of the Medici. In just four years, between 1486 and 1490, Ghirlandaio and his workshop completed a monumental work that was entirely to Tornabuoni's satisfaction.

Using classical pilasters and entablatures, Ghirlandaio divided the two enormous walls under the wall rib in this Gothic chapel into six horizontally rectangular picture fields. They are placed above each other in three layers and are crowned by a pointed tympanum. The chapel's front wall, in contrast, has three high-pointed arch windows that provide room on either side for three smaller, vertically rectangular pictures, as well as the large tympanum above them. Here Ghirlandaio designed not just the colourful stained glass windows, still at their original location, he also created the altarpiece and its back. These panel paintings, however, are no longer here, they are scattered in different museums. The vaulting of the chapel contains the Evangelists. On the left wall Domenico frescoed the stories of Mary, on the right the life of St John the Baptist. Both stories unfold so smoothly, and in the context of the purest Christian tradition, that it is unnecessary to look for their guiding principle and inspiration outside the Bible and the most elementary religious teaching.

The overall conception of the chapel has been thought through carefully, right down to the direction of the light. As in the Last Supper in the church of Ognissanti, Ghirlandaio rigorously integrated into his scenes the way in which the interior was lit through the three windows: the scenes on the left wall are lit from the right, and those on the right wall from the left - as though from the real windows.

It was only possible for Ghirlandaio to produce such an extensive work in four years by using assistants from his large workshop. At this time his brothers, brother-in-low and several students were working there; the young Michelangelo is thought to have been working there as an assistant, though this cannot be proved. It is likely that Ghirlandaio produced all the plans, but painted only parts of the works himself. The magnificent portraits and the atmospheric, well balanced spaces in the lower picture fields suggest that Ghirlandaio himself painted them. The upper pictures are of poorer quality, here - in the dizzy heights where pictures could be seen only from a distance - he allowed others to do the painting.

With the wall and vault frescoes, panel paintings and designs for the windows, Ghirlandaio created a magnificent composite work which is a major example of chapel decoration at the end of the Quattrocento. This is the most famous and most celebrated work of Ghirlandaio, his reputation being based principally on it. The frescoes were recently restored (1996).

Preview Picture Data File Info Comment
View of the Tornabuoni Chapel
1485-90
Fresco
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

1000*1396
True Color
203 Kb



View of the Tornabuoni Chapel
1485-90
Fresco
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

874*1200
True Color
215 Kb



View of the Tornabuoni Chapel (detail)
1485-90
Fresco
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

900*882
True Color
212 Kb



View along the nave to the Tornabuoni Chapel
-
-
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

961*960
True Color
185 Kb




Summary of works by Ghirlandaio
1. Early works (1471-73)
2. Stories of St Fina at San Gimignano (1473-75)
3. Frescoes in Florence and Rome (1480-84)
4. Last Supper scenes
5. Decoration of the Sassetti Chapel (1482-85)
6. Frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel (1486-89)
7. Panel paintings
8. Adoration of the Magi (1488)
9. Drawings