The art essay of the month

Birth of the Virgin (1485–1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494)

Domenico Ghirlandaio was already the acknowledged master of fresco painting in Florence when he was commissioned in 1485 to paint a series of frescoes on the walls of the apse in the chancel of the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, a project to be paid for by the prominent Florentine banker Giovanni Tornabuoni. Ghirlandaio conceived an elaborate plan of twenty frescoes which would frame the main altar in what was known as the Cappella Maggiore. The frescoes on the left side were devoted to the Virgin Mary, patroness of the Church, while those on the right depicted Saint John the Baptist, patron of Florence. The artist’s intent was to emphasise the birth of Christ by focusing upon Mary and Saint John the Baptist as, in a sense, two great forerunners of the Messiah. Of the many frescoes the most acclaimed at the time—as it remains today—was the Birth of the Virgin.

Mary and Jesus: The two births

Mary’s nativity is not recorded in Scripture, but narratives can be found in apocryphal texts such as the Protoevangelium of James. As Marian devotion increased over the centuries, particularly after the Council of Ephesus, artists increasingly turned their attention to Mary’s birth as a subject for painting. In Ghirlandaio’s fresco all activity takes place within a Renaissance palazzo bedroom, rendered in depth with flawless perspective. Since Mary’s birth is a crucial moment in the gradual unfolding of salvation history, narrative technique plays an important role in this scene, as it does in almost all the artist’s paintings. The viewer first notices, at the upper left corner, an elderly couple exchanging a kiss. They are Saints Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, whose kiss represents Mary’s conception. This symbolic representation had been practised by artists for centuries before Ghirlandaio, but he places the couple at the top of a staircase, which leads the viewer’s eye down into the room where a group of five women, by their stance, further direct the viewer’s attention across the room to the far right, where Saint Anne is sitting up in her bed. The infant Mary is attended by three midwives who prepare her bath and whose presence relates this event to the Nativity of Jesus, who was often depicted in painting as attended by midwives, preparing such a bath in the cave in Bethlehem. In this way Ghirlandaio visually establishes the essential role of Mary’s nativity as prefiguring the eventual birth of her Son. This visual reference to Bethlehem is reinforced by the presence of the five women to the left, whose visit recalls the shepherds who came to see the Christ Child. This gradual emergence of the new age of the Redeemer, through Mary’s birth, is also suggested by the partial diminishing of the shadows on the back wall by light which is breaking through from a single small window on the right, above Saint Anne’s head.

A contemporary Florentine setting

One notices not only the room’s Florentine architectural detail but also the stylish contemporary garments of the figures, particularly the five visitors. The artist has chosen to place his scriptural narrative not in the Israel of Joachim and Anne’s time but in 15th-century Florence. While Ghirlandaio was not unique in situating biblical scenes in a contemporary setting, he did have a predilection for so doing, undoubtedly reflecting and even catering to the taste of his Florentine public and patrons. But more importantly, the artist practises here a kind of inculturation. By situating these well-known narratives in a familiar Florentine setting, Ghirlandaio makes these sacred and ancient events come alive for the contemporary viewer. This approach implies that salvation history is not finished, but ongoing. These events are not merely historical, but current and eternal. Viewers are invited to model themselves upon the figures and their virtue, to draw from them inspiration for living the Christian life in the contemporary world. Ghirlandaio’s well-documented love for the day-to-day reality of life and religious practice brings this essential moment of salvation history alive with new vibrancy.

There are also several prominent Florentine women depicted among the figures, all related to the donor, Giovanni Tornabuoni. Including the visage of a donor or even the artist in religious painting was a long-established practice going back centuries before the Renaissance. Such references were intended as a prayer by the donor or family member, but have suggested to some a form of vanity. However, such specificity is not always a catering to vanity. Among the three midwives, the one farthest to the left, seated and establishing eye contact with the five visitors, is Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the donor’s sister-in-law. Lucrezia died in childbirth while Ghirlandaio was painting the fresco. Her presence adds a poignant note, in this nativity scene, of the precariousness of childbirth and of life itself, as well as of the need for redemption.

Spiritual response

At the same time, this fresco reminds the 21st-century viewer of Mary’s essential role in the coming of her Son, Jesus Christ, and of how Saints Joachim and Anne, by their deep faith and patient waiting, contributed to the Messiah’s birth. The viewer’s appropriate response is expressed in the sculptural frieze of dancing figures, the putti, drawn from classical art and probably modelled after such carved figures in the Florence Cathedral. In this sacred context, their dance celebrates the nativity of the Virgin and the sure coming of her Son. The spiritually sensitive viewer today cannot but share their joy and concur with their sentiment as expressed in the Latin inscription just beneath their dancing feet: “Thy Birth, O Virgin and Mother of God, brings joy to all the world.”

Francis J. Greene

Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Saint Francis College, Brooklyn, New York

Birth of the Virgin (1485–1490), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. © Domingie & Rabatti / la Collection.