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

The Strozzi Altarpiece

Tempera on wood, 274 x 296 cm
Cappella Strozzi, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The change in Orcagna's style is likely to have resulted from his involvement from 1352 in a new commission: a monumental architectural tabernacle, adorned with sculpture, for Bernardo Daddi's miraculous image of the Virgin Enthroned, housed in Orsanmichele. The change is manifested especially in the Strozzi Altarpiece, signed "Anni Dni MCCCLVII Andreas Cionis de Florentia me pinxit" and commissioned in 1354 by Tommaso di Rosello Strozzi for the altar of the family chapel in Santa Maria Novella.

It is a pioneering work, until very recently misconstrued as a two-dimensional painting, lacking in depth. What is new in the work is the way Orcagna departs from the additive, compartmentalized structure of previous polyptychs by unifying the picture plane with the pictorial space; also new is the incorporation of the frame as an integral element of the pictorial space. A further innovation, prefigured only in the Baronci triptych (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), is the dislocation of the spatial structure by the abolition of the space around Christ, in order to give his presence the character of an apparition.

The work makes use of the Early Christian motif of the Traditio legis et clavium, whereby Christ entrusts St Paul with the doctrine of the Church and St Peter with its authority, although here St Thomas Aquinas takes the place of St Paul. By placing the Virgin and St John the Baptist behind Sts Thomas and Peter, the work relates to the Deësis iconography, which represents the mediation of grace at the Last Judgement. The message conveyed by the Strozzi Altarpiece is that such grace can be obtained only through the Church; this links it to Nardo's frescoes in the same chapel, with which it forms a unified programme.