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

Herod's Banquet

Fresco, width 450 cm
Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The cycle of the life of St John concludes in the large tympanum with Herod's Banquet, about which Vasari wrote that: "The last scene, the one in the arch next to the vaulting, presents the sumptuous Banquet of Herod and the Dance of Herodias, along with countless servants performing various chores in the scene ; the picture also contains a large building drawn in perspective which, together with the painted figures, clearly reveals Domenico's skill."

A colossal palace architecture, carefully constructed according to the laws of perspective, rises up in the form of a series of enormous barrel and dome vaults, which in the foreground are supported by columns. Ghirlandaio was familiar with these columns with entablature blocks from Brunelleschi's Florentine churches of Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo, while the complex overall design of the building is reminiscent of the Maxentius Basilica in Rome. That classical building had been built by the Roman emperors Maxentius and Constantine as a monumental hall building with three aisles; the long central aisle was roofed by three huge groin vaults and the side aisles by coffered vaults.

In contrast to his more restrained depiction of Mary's death, here Ghirlandaio uses his powers to the full, both in the extravagant architecture and the vivid, though still somewhat stiff, figure of the dancing Salome. Ghirlandaio adopted and varied this dancing figure, together with the entire composition of the scene, from Filippo Lippi's depiction of the same scene in Prato Cathedral, painted between 1452 and 1466. That earlier painting already contains the musicians on the left, the row of pots on the right and the view out onto a landscape in the center. The arrangement of the figures was altered, but scarcely improved, by Ghirlandaio. Above all, and in the face of the festive and yet gruesome events, the figures lack all sense of drama. They display neither a lively party mood nor signs of horror or repulsion. The arrangement of the banqueters around the three long laid tables is reminiscent of Ghirlandaio's earlier depictions of the Last Supper. Here too, in addition to wine glasses and bowls, red cherries are arranged on the white table cloth.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 15 minutes):
Richard Strauss: Salome, closing scene