(b. ca. 1308, Firenze, d. ca. 1368, Firenze)


Marble, lapis lazuli, gold and glass inlay
Orsanmichele, Florence

The Black Death struck in Italy in 1349, followed by an economic crisis that brought about a sharp break in sculptural activity, so that, with the exception of Andrea Orcagna's shrine in the Orsanmichele in Florence, the sculptural scene remained extremely barren until the closing decade of the century.

While the Strozzi Altarpiece was being painted, work on the tabernacle in Orsanmichele, begun in 1352, continued steadily. To be able to execute it at all Orcagna had to take the exceptional step of joining (1352) a second guild, that of builders and masons. He designed the tabernacle as a completely self-contained domed structure to enclose the miraculous painting; the work even included the surrounding marble balustrade, to which Pietro di Migliore (active 1357-1385) added only the bronze rings and plates in 1366. The three open arcades of the tabernacle could be closed or opened by means of wooden shutters sliding vertically on rails. The architectural idiom and the motifs of the rich decoration and the figural sculptures display a Marian iconography.

No fewer than 117 figural reliefs and statues were carved to adorn the tabernacle and to convey its complex iconography. In the socle area and behind the painting are 10 scenes from the Life of the Virgin combined with 15 allegories of the Virtues, presenting the Virgin as the mater virtutum. In addition, eight Old Testament figures and St Luke point to the events depicted from the Life of the Virgin. The painting is surrounded by several choirs of angels and cherubim on the frame, in the centres of the corner piers, in the spandrels of the arcades and above the arcade arches. A cycle of Apostles with excerpts from the Creed surrounds the Virgin, who is shown as the mater ecclesiae. In the gables of the tabernacle are angels with the words Ave Maria and Gratia plena.

The placing of the statue of St Michael the Archangel at the highest point of the dome and under the boss of one of the six vaults of the hall of Orsanmichele creates an obvious link between the tabernacle and its location. Orcagna - a painter by training - clearly engaged only highly qualified masons and sculptors, whom he guided by extremely precise instructions at the workshop founded specially for the purpose. Sculptors of the highest calibre were rare at any time; they must have been sought primarily among the few sculptors documented in Florence. The question therefore arises whether these sculptors were involved in the execution of the many reliefs and statues of the tabernacle. One group of works that can only have been by Orcagna's hand is identifiable; it includes the reliefs of the Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin, the Death and Assumption of the Virgin. Although the tabernacle is dated in an inscription, Andreas Cionis pictor Florentin oratorii archimagister extitit hui MCCCLIX, it was not finished, according to documentary records, until 1360.