Andrea da Firenze, The Resurrection, from the "Spanish Chapel," Santa Maria Novella
Florence in the 14th century saw catastrophes and transformations that challenged the most bedrock assumptions that people lived by for generations. Fires, a solar eclipse, the Flood of 1333, economic collapse and famine, labor struggles, and worst of all, the Black Death of 1348 which killed half of the city’s population in a single summer, shook the faith of many people across class lines. Most serious of all, the rise of early capitalism challenged the old feudal order, and all of the ideas upon which that order rested.
Radical thinkers (even by our standards) flourished in this century. The Fraticelli, the extreme followers of Saint Francis, challenged the hierarchies of both the old feudal order and the new capitalist order. Some of their number, anticipating a lot of radical socialist thought by centuries, called into question the very idea of private property. As we have seen, the Ciompi Revolt of 1378 was probably history’s first uprising of industrial labor, when the city’s textile workers briefly seized power in the republic. The followers of Giacomo di Fiore extended this radical egalitarianism into the realm of the spirit challenging the Church’s distinctions between laity and clergy, and its hierarchical claims to authority. Mystical visionaries, mostly women, from Julian of Norwich to Catherine of Siena, presented highly personal experiences of the spiritual through eloquent and poetic writings that had a tremendous influence on the broad public, and threatened the Church’s claim to be the sole recipient of divine revelation.
The Keepers of the Mysteries, the Powers That Be, saw all of this burgeoning political and spiritual creativity in the wake of these disasters as anarchy. They decided to re-establish orthodoxy and tradition through the force of argument, or failing that, just through force. Art played a large role in the long reaction of the later 14th century.
In 1951, Millard Meiss published a groundbreaking book, Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death in which he argued that the dramatic formal changes in painting from those cities in the second half of the Trecento were a direct consequence of the Black Death and its aftermath. Meiss’ book continues to shape the study and the debate over art from the last half of the Trecento. Earlier authors attributed the flattened form and linearity of the art from this time to exhaustion and decline after the first half and the revolution produced by Giotto and his followers. Meiss argued that these formal changes were a deliberate and conservative reaction against the humanism and naturalism of Giotto and his school. Meiss, a man who lived through the dark catastrophes of the early 20th century, saw the trauma and anxiety created by earlier catastrophes in this work. Where others once saw decline, Meiss saw anguished expressionism and a deliberate regress into traditional anti-naturalism echoing the hardening religious conservatism, and even fundamentalism, in the decades that followed the Black Death of 1348.
Art in Florence in the wake of the Black Death and other catastrophes of the 14th century hardly went into decline. Contrary to our expectations, not only did artistic production actually increase after the disaster, but the scale and ambition of works of art became vast. The disaster accelerated construction of Florence’s cathedral while ending construction on the expansion of Siena’s cathedral. The Plague created a boom in painting and sculpture, even after the deaths of major artists like Andrea Pisano and the Lorenzetti brothers.
Some of the largest and most spectacular painting projects in Trecento Florence were produced after the Black Death in the second half of the 14th century. Two of them can be found in the great Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella on the west side of the city center.
Tommaso Strozzi, the founder of the Strozzi family fortune, commissioned two painters, both brothers, Andrea di Cione (called Orcagna) and Nardo di Cione to decorate a tall family chapel in the south transept of the great church.
Interior of Santa Maria Novella, the transepts; The Strozzi Chapel is in the background to the left; the Strozzi family owned another large chapel, the one on the right, that was frescoed by Fillipino Lippi in the late 15th century.
The Strozzi Chapel with frescoes by Nardo di Cione, and an altarpiece by his brother, Andrea di Cione, known as Orcagna. Frescoes and altarpiece completed 1357.
The Strozzi Chapel with Orcagna's altarpiece
Instead of narratives told in a series of compartments that covered the walls of chapels painted by Giotto and his followers, we are overwhelmed by a single immense catastrophic spectacle that covers all three walls from floor to ceiling, a height of almost 50 feet. All three walls of the chapel form a single subject, The Last Judgment. A painted cast of thousands acts out the final doom of humankind across these three high walls. Individuals become mere faces in a huge crowd of people. Some of them high up on the walls of the tall narrow chapel are almost invisible to us. On the center wall is the window with glass designed by both brothers showing the Madonna and Child above, and the patron saint of the chapel, St. Thomas Aquinas. In the single immense fresco painting around the window, Christ divides the elect from the damned. Perhaps inspired by the slightly earlier painting of The Last Judgment in the Camposanto in Pisa, Christ at the very top turns with great fury to cast the wicked into hell. As in that earlier fresco in Pisa, the doomed go into contortions of despair and anguish.
Detail from Nardo di Cione's Last Judgment in the Strozzi Chapel, the damned.
Hell covers the wall to our right (Christ’s left in the painting). Painted in dreary murky earth colors, the vision of hell modeled on the one described by Dante in the Inferno shows sinners assigned to their appropriate eternal torments.
Nardo di Cione, Hell, from the Strozzi Chapel
Detail from Nardo's Hell showing torment described in Dante's Inferno.
Nardo di Cione appears not to have read very far in the Divine Comedy because the Paradise that covers the wall to our left is a traditional image of the saints in orderly rows before the enthroned Christ and Madonna, only now on a colossal scale and in beautiful colors.
Nardo di Cione, Paradise, from the Strozzi Chapel
These paintings don’t tell a story so much as overwhelm us with spectacle. The lives and feelings of the individuals caught up in the events shrink to the merest of incidents in all of the apocalyptic pageantry.
The scariest painting in the chapel is not on the walls, but on the altar.
Orcagna, Christ Giving the Keys to Peter and the Book of Doctrine to Thomas Aquinas, altarpiece from the Strozzi Chapel
Orcagna (Andrea di Cione) painted what should be a straightforward altarpiece subject, Christ enthroned in majesty, attended by saints, gives the Keys to kneeling Saint Peter, and the book of True Doctrine to kneeling Saint Thomas Aquinas. Christ sits in the center of the painting in a by now very archaic mandorla of seraphim.
Orcagna, Christ from the Strozzi Chapel altarpiece.
He stares right out at us with a ferocious threatening stare that practically shoots lightning bolts out of His eyes. This figure is closer in spirit to the Terrible Final Judge from whom there is no appeal who dominates 11th century tympanum sculptures than He is to anything by Giotto, or his followers, or Duccio, or even Cimabue. The figure of John the Baptist to the right echoes that ferocious and threatening stare. There is a visionary anti-naturalism in this painting (and in the surrounding frescoes) which Meiss called a revival of Italo-Byzantine tradition. It’s not quite a revival. This painting is something very original. The naturalism of the earlier generation hasn’t been forgotten or entirely discarded. The saints are as distinctly French Gothic as the frame. Chiaroscuro still shapes three dimensional form in the figures convincingly. Those things that were once the whole rhyme and reason for Giotto’s art are now subordinated to a visionary and transcendent effect. Figures now play symbolic roles rather than act out meaning through drama. Faces on the saints are bland and inexpressive, except for the angry stares of Christ and The Baptist. The old flat gold background of the Italo-Byzantine style is back. Chiaroscuro, while present, is minimized flattening out the pictorial space. The ground plane shows this flattening out of space most dramatically. It is a single uninflected bright red color with gold pattern that in no way is made to look anything like a perspective recession. None of the figures casts a shadow on it. They float before the red floor rather than stand on it.
The so-called “Spanish Chapel” stands a few yards from the Strozzi Chapel, attached to the Chiostro Verde or “Green Cloister” of Santa Maria Novella. Grand Duke Cosimo I purchased it as a burial chapel for the family of his wife, Eleanora of Toledo in the 16th century, thus the name “Spanish Chapel.” This very large and grand room, one of the most spectacular in Florence still to this day, was originally the chapter hall of the very large and very important Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Novella. Here the friars met daily for the reading of a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict (hence the name “chapter hall”), to discuss business and administrative matters, and to hold inquisitorial tribunals. Saint Catherine of Siena faced just such a tribunal in this room underneath these frescoes in 1374.
The "Spanish Chapel," the former chapter hall of the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella; built by Fra Jacopo Talenti, and frescoed by Andrea da Firenze (Andrea di Bonaiuto) 1365, funds for the frescoes given by the merchant Buonamico di Lapo Guidalotti.
Another view of the "Spanish Chapel" in Santa Maria Novella's Green Cloister
Construction began on this very large vaulted room in 1343 before the outbreak of the Black Death, and was completed in 1355. An artist known as Andrea da Firenze or Andrea di Bonaiuto frescoed the whole room in 1365. This is his only identified, or surviving, work. It is one of the largest and most spectacular fresco cycles surviving from 14th century Florence.
This entire grand complex allegorical cycle revolves around a single theme, which I find extremely unattractive, the idea of salvation by sound doctrine. If we all believe correctly as we are told, and pass the exam, then we can avoid hell and enter heaven. Andrea da Firenze painted this fresco cycle for very learned, well-read, intelligent men who saw themselves as the Church’s enforcers, as its spiritual police, defending the innocent, and the Church, from soul-imperiling heresies. They described themselves in a pun on their name (which Andrea da Firenze painted), the “Domini Canes,” the “Hounds of the Lord.” Part of the greatness of Andrea da Firenze’s frescoes lies in how well he knew his intended audience.
The cycle is allegorical and not narrative. This is not about telling stories, but teaching lessons. Like Nardo di Cione’s frescoes in the nearby Strozzi Chapel, nothing is separated into narrative compartments. Each wall is a single immense composition, a spectacle involving casts of hundreds if not quite thousands. The main wall containing a small chapel with an altar tells the story of Christ’s Passion in a single undivided (and anti-naturalistic) scene beginning with the Road to Calvary on the left, culminating in the Crucifixion at the top, and ending in the Descent Into Limbo on the right. In a small separate scene up in the ribbed vault above is The Resurrection.
Andrea da Firenze, The Passion of Christ, altar wall of the "Spanish Chapel"
Another photo of the same fresco, this time taken by a tourist; this picture is not as clear as the professional photo above, but it is closer to the actual experience of seeing it. The woman before the altar gives some idea of the enormous size of these frescoes.
The ceiling vault of the "Spanish Chapel," on the bottom above the window on the entrance wall is the Ascension; immediately above it, and above the altar wall is The Resurrection; to the right is Pentecost; to the left is a subject known in Italy as the Navicella, Christ Walking On Water.
On the entrance wall is a very badly damaged fresco of the life of St. Peter Martyr, an enforcer who died in the line of duty, killed either by Cathari conspirators or by a man avenging his brother’s death at the hands of the Inquisition depending on which version of the story you read. Above that on the vaulted ceiling is the Ascension.
A surviving portion of the entrance wall fresco, showing St. Peter Martyr preaching
On the left wall as you enter the room is a huge allegorical fresco praising another hero of the order, Saint Thomas Aquinas.
View of the Chapel toward the Triumph of Thomas Aquinas
Andrea da Firenze, The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas
He sits enthroned in glory in a composition as clearly and logically spelled out as one of his arguments. The arch-heretics, Averroes, Arius, and Nestor (or Sabellius) cringe at his feet. Aquinas sits flanked by evangelists and prophets. Below him on the left are The Sacred Sciences, each represented by a personification, and below each is an exemplary saint. The Liberal Arts arrange themselves in similar fashion to the right.
The Seven Liberal Arts from the Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Above Aquinas fly the 4 Cardinal Virtues and the 3 Sacred Virtues with Caritas at the top. Above that wall in the vault is a fresco of Pentecost. Are you following all of the thematic connections between these paintings? Rest assured that the friars certainly were.
On the left wall is a large fresco that makes explicit the implicit theme of Salvation Through Sound Doctrine. It is usually known by the apocryphal title of The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant.
Andrea da Firenze, "The Church Militant and Triumphant"
It is the upward path to salvation through correct belief very carefully mapped out for us. On the lowest level is the Church Militant on earth. To the left is orthodox religious teaching about politics, Church and State, Pope and Emperor together engaged in the project of saving souls.
Detail from "The Church Militant and Triumphant,' The Church Militant on earth showing Pope and Emperor enthroned with their ministers in the foreground; The church in the background is based on the design proposed for Florence Cathedral by Arnolfo di Cambio, almost certainly modified by Andrea da Firenze.
Behind Pope and Emperor, their ministers, and the gathered populace, is an early vision of the then incomplete Florence Cathedral representing the Church as institution. To the right, Dominican heroes confront the pagans and heretics.
Detail from "The Church Militant and Triumphant," showing St. Peter Martyr preaching to the heretics on the left, and Thomas Aquinas converting the heathens on the right; below, the black and white "Domini Canes" (Hounds of God) attack the wolves of heresy
. Saint Dominic appears immediately to the right of the church unleashing the literal black and white “Domini Canes,” (Hounds of the Lord) who immediately attack the wolves of heresy all across the bottom of the picture. To his right, Peter Martyr confronts jeering heretics, and Thomas Aquinas, holding the open Gospel book, successfully converts the pagans. Above those heroes of the order, groups of elegant fashionable young people joylessly go through the motions of earthly pleasure, and then find penitence, followed by a welcome to the Church Triumphant in Heaven that looks more like a first day at school.
Above this in the vault panel is Christ Walking on Water with Peter unsuccessfully going out to meet Him, about to disappear beneath the waves because of the weakness of his faith.
The Navicella in the vault above "The Church Militant and Triumphant."
The fisherman on shore watching is a rare touch of story-telling appeal with no obvious allegorical function. This is a subject that the Italians call the Navicella.
The whole splendid cycle is magnificent in an overwhelming way, impersonal, and very intellectual. It is also deliberately anti-naturalistic. While it has its visionary moments, it has none of the emotional expressionism of the work of the Cione brothers (although the emotion in their work is hardly warm and friendly). I’ve visited this room twice, and I find it very admirable, magnificent, and even stirring, but not exactly lovable.
The experience of the Black Death intensified the veneration of miraculous images, a practice that the Church had very mixed feelings about, but the general population apparently didn’t. The Christian saints, and especially the Virgin Mary, found themselves drafted into the ancient pre-Christian role of protector deities. While certainly not doctrinally sound, this practice met genuine human needs. The cult of Our Lady of Orsanmichele in Florence burgeoned in the wake of the Black Death. The cult focused upon a miracle-working image of the Virgin and Child in the city’s grain market, first built in the 13th century on the site of a small 9th century church of Saint Michael (San Michele del ‘Orto, St. Michael of the Garden, thus the contraction in Florentine dialect, Orsanmichele).
Distribution of Grain at Orsanmichele from ca.1335 - 1340; note the Orsanmichele Madonna in a tabernacle presiding over the grain distribution.
That original image was probably nothing more than a crude devotional image nailed up on one of the brick piers holding up the wooden market roof. The painting quickly began to acquire a reputation for working miracles, and soon the veneration of Our Lady of Orsanmichele began to crowd the activities of the grain market. In 1304, fire destroyed both the original market and the miracle working painting, though the veneration continued. What mattered was not the painting, but the Virgin Mary who for some mysterious reason chose the city grain market as a place to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted. In 1337, Florence built a new larger grain market on the site, designed by a team of architects including two men who were also working on the city’s cathedral, Francesco Talenti and Andrea Pisano. The new market was built out of fireproof stone and brick with upper floors for the city’s grain stores. The contingencies of medieval agriculture compelled many cities to keep public grain supplies in case of shortages (the specter of bread riots kept many a burgomaster awake at night). The ground floor was originally an open loggia where the buying and selling of grain took place. Two of the piers holding up the rest of the building are hollow and contain a staircase, and a kind of early freight elevator for moving large quantities of grain back and forth between the market below and the granaries above.
In 1347, the artist Bernardo Daddi painted a replacement for the original miracle-working image, which hung on a pier of the new market, very much as the original image did in the old market. In true Renaissance fashion, the very medieval worship of a miracle-working image coexisted with a very modern pragmatic matter of food distribution.
The Black Death in 1348 dramatically expanded the veneration of the Madonna del’ Orsanmichele to the point where her worshippers were beginning to crowd out the activities in the market. In 1349, Orcagna designed and built an enormous lavish new marble tabernacle to house the image. In 1380, her worship had so crowded out the grain market that the city decided to move the market elsewhere and turn the whole ground floor into a church dedicated to her worship, walling in the old loggia.
Interior of the Church of Orsanmichele on the ground floor
Orcagna, tabernacle in Orsanmichele containing Bernardo Daddi's painting of the Orsanmichele Madonna
Another view of Orcagna's tabernacle
Bernardo Daddi's remaking of the miraculous image of the Madonna of Orsanmichele
This is the same Orcagna (Andrea di Cione) who painted that ferocious altarpiece in the Strozzi Chapel. The Orsanmichele tabernacle is his only surviving work of architecture and sculpture. To my eye, it is just as ferocious as the Strozzi altarpiece only without the staring Christ. It is an amazingly lavish structure covered in inlays of glass and semi-precious stones. Beneath all the ornament, it is a very foursquare simple structure. Four solid piers support a vaulted ceiling topped by a melon-shaped octagonal dome that is another foretaste of the as yet unbuilt dome of the Florence cathedral. The dome is partially obscured by tall pediments made from equilateral triangles. As John White points out, it is very much a painter’s building, a series of highly decorated flat planes joined together, making the building look like lace.
On the back of the tabernacle, facing us as we enter a door behind it is a huge relief sculpture of the Assumption of the Virgin. To my mind, he’s a fine sculptor, but his painting is much more powerful.
Orcagna, Assumption of the Virgin, relief sculpture on the back of the Tabernacle in Orsanmichele
It appears to me that the remarkable size and splendor of this art is about the enforcement of a newly threatened orthodoxy; that size and spectacle could somehow compensate where argument and experience fail. Florentine art remained in this very conservative mode for 50 years (for over 70 years in the case of painting). This was a time, like our own, when some people wanted to start the whole world over again in the wake of multiple disasters, but most others beat a frightened retreat back into orthodoxy and the conventional. Historical events that dramatically changed the way that Florentines thought about themselves and their state, and changes in thought and letters in these years would create the demand for an entirely new art that speaks more truly to experience in a greatly changed world.