Reciprocity Between Window and Wall in Renaissance Florence

The “window wall” of the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1485-1490. Photo: Author
The “window wall” of the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1485-1490. Photo: Author

Renaissance art was essentially public art, even as it was commissioned by single individuals and religious and civic organizations. The donor was keen to see the monument in a public place, accessible to all. It was a mark of status, a demonstration of piety, and a call for remembrance and prayers.

Religion, economics, and politics were linked. “Governments underscored their legitimacy with memorable images in which divine and civic virtues were combined,” explains the Renaissance specialist John Paoletti. The wealthy merchants’ status depended on their acumen and their largess in the decoration of the religious orders’ sites.

Prayer was another powerful incentive to pay for religious work. The patrons of the time were deeply convinced that prayers for the dead were essential for their ultimate reception in heaven. The chapels they supported were the sites where priests daily offered masses dedicated for the souls in purgatory. The prayers of the living were believed to be efficacious in obtaining forgiveness for any errors committed by individuals on earth and thus hasten their entry into heaven.

Florence’s Stained Glass

Let us look at the stained glass in Florence. Too often scholars neglect the stained glass of Florentine churches in favor of narrow studies of the frescos and the artists’ personal styles. The guidebooks often skim over the windows to concentrate on the non-translucent decorative elements.

In most cases the windows, frescos, and the altar pieces were commissioned as an ensemble. The city is splendid since so many works of art remain in their original locations and therefore the ensembles remain together.

The patrons were powerful families in Florence. They were keen to acquire the finest product using specified materials to reflect the imagery dear to the family. We have ample evidence through tax records and contracts between artists and patrons that issues such as size, time of completion, and guarantee of the artist’s personal contribution, not simply his workshop, would be part of the enterprise.

These contracts frequently specified materials. They might mandate a high-cost blue pigment derived from crushing lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, for example, or real gold leaf, not a yellow paint substitute.

We will look at three churches. First, Santa Maria Novella, a foundation of the Dominican order located in the northwest part of the city. Then we will look at Santa Croce, the Franciscan church in the southeast part of the city. Finally, Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, in the center of the city.

Santa Maria Novella

Families jealously guarded their rights to decorate chapels. The Ricci family had long held the right to decorate the walls of the chancel of Santa Maria Novella, but fell into financial straits, forcing them to declare bankruptcy in 1348. The original frescos in the chapel, painted by Andrea and Bernardo Orcagna in the mid-fourteenth century, had by the 1480s become severely water damaged. Still financially vulnerable, the family sold its right to the Sassetti family, wealthy bankers of the Medici.

Francesco Sassetti wanted a series of frescos to honor the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Dominicans opposed having images of the “competition” set in a central worship area of the church. Sassetti subsequently shifted his attention to Santa Trinita, which, although not a Franciscan foundation, accepted the subject matter. The Sassetti chapel there, painted by Domenic Ghirlandaio, included a portrait of the donor and six impressive scenes of the life of Francis.

The Riccis then sold their right to Giovanni Tornabuoni, who promised to continue the subject matter of the earlier, damaged frescos. He had risen to prominence as treasurer for Pope Sixtus IV, who reigned from 1471 to 1484. A fresco of him kneeling in prayer appears immediately to lower left of the window wall. His arms, a rampant lion quartered in green and gold, appears in the window he faces.

The chapel is renowned for its extensive and well-preserved fresco cycle and windows created by Ghirlandaio and his workshop between 1485 and 1490. (Ghirlandaio was buried at the church when he died in 1494.) The windows were fabricated by Alessandro Florentino. The chapel is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin and the major themes are the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Saint John the Baptist, the subject matter of the original frescos.

On the left wall, below the Massacre of the Innocents, we see the Marriage of the Virgin to Saint Joseph. On the window wall above the donor portrait, we see the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel kneeling before Mary. In the window, Saint Dominic holds lilies, Saint John the Baptist holds a cruciform staff, and, at the top, Saint Peter carries a book and keys.

The central section begins with the Miracle of the Snow. The legend tells that the Virgin appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius, asking for a church in her name. The following morning, despite it being August, snow fell, outlining the dimension of the church. Begun in 432, the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the most venerable in Rome.

Above the Miracle is the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple Above that is the Assumption of the Virgin, who lets down her girdle to Saint Thomas, a reference to the tangibility of her physical assumption to heaven. To the right, the row begins with Saint Thomas Aquinas wearing a star-studded robe and holding a sun of divine radiance, symbol of his inspired theology. Above him Saint Lawrence, a deacon in Rome, holds his grill, the symbol of his martyrdom. At the top is Saint Paul, a complement to Saint Peter on the left.

Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, 1485-1490. Credit: Author
Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, 1485-1490. Photo: Author

The completion of the chapel in 1490 is recorded in a Latin inscription placed on the arch in the fresco of Zachariah receiving the angel’s message: An [anno] MCCCCLXXXX quo pulcherrima civitas opibus victoriis artibus aedifichiisque nobili[s] copia salubritate pace perfruebatur (During the year 1490 the most beautiful city for wealth, victories and commerce, famous for its monuments, enjoyed abundance, health and peace).

Chapel of Filippo Strozzi, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Filippino Lippi, 1487-1502. Credit: Author
Chapel of Filippo Strozzi, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Filippino Lippi, 1487-1502. Photo: Author

The chapel to the right of the main altar was commissioned by Filippo Strozzi and decorated by Filippino Lippi between 1487 and 1502. Strozzi had been exiled to Naples and the commission was part of an extensive campaign to rehabilitate his family name. A contact has been preserved between the patron and the artist, one that his heirs continued after Filippo’s death in 1491.

The frescos of the window wall are executed in primarily grisaille, or neutral tones. In one, a pagan muse, music, holds a lyre and instructs a child to play the pan flutes. The illusionistic architecture creates a three-dimensional “trompe l’oeil” foil for the deeper colors in the glass.

Lippi also apparently designed the windows. In the main window, the Madonna and Child appear below a wreath with the Lamb of God. Below, under the Strozzi coat of arms showing a gold shield with a red band carrying three white crescents, we see the apostles John the Evangelist and Philip, name saint of the patron. On the left wall, Saint John the Evangelist resuscitates the Christian woman Druisana who had welcomed him in her home in Ephesus, a legend from early Christian times.

The Spanish Chapel

Each religious order was keen to promote its work in religious and social spheres, and did so in the decoration of their churches and buildings. We can see that in the Spanish Chapel, off the smaller cloister immediately to the left of the basilica. It honors the Dominicans in an extraordinarily complex and original composition. It retains one of the most admired fresco cycles of its time.

On the left side, the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas sits enthroned, flanked by figures from the Old and New Testaments. Below him are personifications of the sciences and academic disciplines, such as canon law, music, and grammar, and below each of them its most notable proponent in history. Euclid sits below Geometry, for example.

On the next wall, the altar wall, we see a moving narrative of the crucifixion. On the right wall, directly across from the image of the enthroned Thomas, the Dominicans honored their history as preachers by depicting luminaries of the order, Thomas Aquinas and Saint Peter Martyr, campaigning against heretics through text and speech. The entrance wall honors Saint Peter Martyr.

The Franciscans’ Santa Croce

The Franciscans were no less distinguished. Santa Croce’s numerous chapels were decorated by important families. The Baroncelli Chapel is one of the most celebrated. Located in the southern transept of the church, it commands a distinctive place within the building.

Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Taddeo Gaddi, 1328-1334. Credit: Author
Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Taddeo Gaddi, 1328-1334. Photo: Author

In the center is a large two-light window with three rows of saintly figures. A series of six images presents, from the bottom, John the Evangelist and Bartholomew, Louis of Toulouse and Sylvester, and Peter and John the Baptist. At the very top of the window Saint Francis receives the stigmata from the seraphic vision. Five of the saints in the windows are name saints of members of the Baroncelli clan as they are listed on the tomb: Pietro (Peter), Vanni (a diminutive of Giovanni for John the Baptist and John the Evangelist), Salvesto (Sylvester), and Bartolo (Bartholomew). The Baroncelli coat of arms, a white shield with transverse bars of red, crowns the window.

Detailed images of the window show the color palette favored in Florence. In contrast to the insistent red and blue of French medieval glass, the Florentine windows incorporate a significant mixture of green and yellow.

The chapel was probably completed from 1328 to 1334 (the date of 1328 is inscribed on the Baroncelli tomb). The Baroncelli were discerning, ordering an altarpiece from arguably the most important painter of the era, and the fresco cycle from his most distinguished pupil.

The altarpiece, showing the Coronation of the Virgin, is signed by Giotto, responsible for cycles of frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi and the renowned Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Scholars have debated to what extent the master executed the work and what part his assistants played, as he accomplished his extensive work with the aid of a large workshop. A long tradition dating from the fifteenth century ascribed the frescos to Taddeo Gaddi, who was a close associate of Giotto, and the windows are associated with him as well.

The chapel’s dedication honored the Virgin Mary and both the frescos and the altarpiece elaborate narratives of her life. We perceive a dynamic reciprocity among altarpiece, window, and frescos. The viewer’s eye darts from subject to subject across the walls and within each scene; we read a story.

Altarpiece and Window

Both altarpiece and window command a central place. Light penetrates the space through the intense colors of the window just as the gold gilt of the altarpiece radiates light from its surface. Both altarpiece and window preserve a hieratic order, emphasizing presence. The saints, suspended in glassy brilliance, suggest to the viewer the glories of transfigured light enjoyed in the beatific vision. In contrast, the frescos, spread in bands across enveloping space, communicate an earth-bound narrative.

In the window wall, the narrative at the top on the left shows the Annunciation to the Virgin, the moment when Gabriel tells her that she will be the mother of the Messiah. On the right we find the Visitation, when the expectant Virgin visits her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Below, on the right is the Nativity of Jesus and on the left, the news communicated to the shepherds.

The second scene is a brilliant nighttime composition, showing two startled reclining shepherds illuminated by the glow of the angelic appearance. Gaddi’s image has remained a touchstone in art, with painters coming after him striving to capture a night scene with such clarity and intensity. Just below, the three Magi look up to a glowing star, in which the Christ Child stands, and on the right they kneel down and worship him.

Barely glimpsed, on the left, is a cycle on the early life of the Virgin. It shows Joachim, her father, expelled from the Temple because he has no child, an angel telling him of the promise of a child, his meeting with his wife Anna at the Golden Gate, the birth of the Virgin, her presentation in the Temple, and her marriage with Joseph.

To the right stand monumental figures of David holding the severed head of Goliath and above him Jesse, the founder of the line of David. Jesse was often depicted in conjunction with the Birth of Christ, following Isaiah: “And there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

The Bardi Chapel

Santa Croce’s Bardi Chapel, to the right of the main altar, was decorated by Giotto in about 1310. The Bardis were bankers established in the thirteenth century. By the fourteenth century, with thirteen international branches—in London, Barcelona, Bruges, Paris, and other places—they were powerful enough to fund the English monarch, Edward III, during his war with France.

Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Stigmatization of Saint Francis and window by Giotto around 1310. Photo: Michel M. Raguin
Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Stigmatization of Saint Francis and window by Giotto around 1310. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

On the exterior wall above the chapel opening, the Stigmatization of Saint Francis draws attention to the stories of the saint’s life on the interior walls. Indeed, the iconic image acts as a summation of the life of the saint. Framed by a stark mountainous landscape, Francis kneels outside a chapel. A seraph bearing the form of the crucified Christ hovers in the sky above.

Giotto not only designed the frescos but the stained glass in the narrow lancet above. On the lowest level, we see Saint Louis of Toulouse wearing a blue cloak with fleur-de-lis, a symbol of France, and Pope Gregory IX in a red chasuble. The pope was a supporter of the mendicant orders and had canonized both Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua. On the next level is Gregory’s predecessor Pope Innocent III who approved the Franciscan Order. Next to him stands Saint Anthony of Padua, an immensely beloved Franciscan saint, barefoot, tonsured, and in simple, brown robes.

Santa Maria del Fiore

Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, often called the Duomo, was equally embellished with stained glass set within frescoed walls and chapels. Begun in 1296, the building was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, also architect of Santa Croce. Its construction continued intermittently over the next century, the nave being completed by 1380. In 1418, the competition for the design of the great dome, the largest since Roman antiquity, was won by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Its completion in 1436 was a major event. Pope Eugenius IV presided at the consecration and the famous French composer Guillaume du Dufay created an innovative motet Nuper rosarum flores (“The rose blossoms recently”) whose patterns were inspired by the structure of the dome. Such a prestigious commission brought leading painters and sculptors for the design of the forty-four windows.

Although sadly difficult to see from the floor, the round windows (oculi) in the drum of the dome show the Life of Christ. Created by some of the greatest Florentine artists of the time, the windows include the Coronation of the Virgin (Donatello), Nativity and Resurrection (Paolo Uccello), Descent from the Cross (Andrea del Castagno), and the Presentation in the Temple and Agony in the Garden (Lorenzo Ghiberti). Similar windows decorate the entrance wall.

Santa Maria del Fiore. Two female saints in the north nave by Lorenzo Ghiberti, fabricated 1435-1443 by Francesco di Giovanni. Photo: Author
Santa Maria del Fiore. Two female saints in the north nave by Lorenzo Ghiberti, fabricated 1435-1443 by Francesco di Giovanni. Photo: Author

In other areas, such as the nave, we find a pattern of paired saints, generally in two to three superimposed rows. Ghiberti was responsible for many, including a series of female saints in the north nave. The long, narrow faces, dense patterns of clustered flowers or leaves in the border, and deep red or green of the drapery strewn with quatrefoil or cinquefoil stars show similarities with Ghiberti’s oculus of Saint Lawrence enthroned.

Florence is highly popular with visitors, but to the stained glass aficionado, careful planning is important. Come off-season and bring binoculars. Try to see the ensemble of windows, frescos, and altar pieces, which is how the great patrons of these buildings saw things.

Virginia Raguin is distinguished professor of humanities at the College of the Holy Cross. Among her many books are Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present and Stained Glass: Radiant Art.