MARY, A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Expulsion of Joaquim from the Temple’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486 -90)
Definitely there is something about Mary! A woman called blessed for generations, the mostly highly favoured one of God and the crown of His creation. For ages the faithful have gathered around her devotional care and sought comfort in her motherly mantle. She is hailed with titles and honoured with pilgrimages. Her maternal protection is invoked upon through rosaries, novenas and the scapular.
Mary, the purest lily, the brightest star, has also enamoured artist of all times who attempted to mirror the beauty of her soul in their brilliant works of art. And yet, could the human mind ever do justice to God’s Masterpiece? As we journey towards the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum invites you, through a series of eight paintings, to admire and absorb the goodness and grace of the Blessed Virgin – the perfect Masterpiece of Christ redemption.
It all began in the little Jewish town of Nazareth. The Feast of the Dedication (Hanukkah) also known as the Festival of lights was at hand. It commemorated the rededication of the Temple altar by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C. It was a day of great solemnity and delight for the people of Jerusalem. All the men in the city had gathered under the grandeur of the magnificent Temple built by Solomon to offer their choicest gifts to the Almighty.
Among them was Joaquim, a pious and just man, who was blessed with wealth and still a richer heart. As he joyfully made his way to the altar of sacrifice, people whispered and grumbled. However Joaquim was blissfully unaware of this. He heard not the scorns and felt not the disapproval. Absorbed by the song in his heart and the thanksgiving in his soul, he lifted up his prized lamb and offered it to the High Priest.
Aghast, the High Priest turned his face and despised Joaquim saying: ‘Thou art not worthy to enter into the Temple for you have not conceived a child for Israel.’ As wandering bleats surged the air, the crowd nodded in agreement. With a turbulent mind and a wounded heart, Joaquim covered his face in shame. As the attendant hurried him out of the Temple, Joaquim clutched his beloved lamb ever closer to his heart.
The darkness on this Feast of light is rattled by the brilliant Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449 – 1494). His painting, ‘The Expulsion of Joaquim from the Temple’ was commissioned by the powerful banker Giovanni Tornabuoni as a remission for his sins in what is now called the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
Ghirlandaio had his every sense to detail in this painting. The scheme of composition is grand; the canvas, decorous; the drawing, precise and the colour, creative. Ghirlandaio convenes the scene in a luxurious loggia styled as a Greek cross. The opulent arcade is towered by a sequence of round arches, each ornamented with decorated spandrels and pilasters. A lush of fresh air spans the stately setting as natural light floods in, illuminating the characters from above.
Ghirlandaio has a sensational sense of story-telling. He often depicts a Biblical scene in a contemporary setting. The portraits of the powerful are sprinkled among those of the ordinary. This not only earned him great popularity but wealthy patrons as well. Let’s take a look at today’s painting. Two groups of Florentine spectators witness the Expulsion of Joaquim. They are dressed à la mode with swanky shoes and head-gears which differ conspicuously from the Jewish participants.
The group to our left includes the artist’s son, Lorenzo Tournabuoni and his friend Piero, the son of the great Lorenzo de’ Medici. To our right are four bystanders, one of whom appears old, shaven and wears a red head-gear. This is Alesso Baldovinetti, Domenico’s master in painting and mosaic. Another with his back turned towards us is his brother, the painter David Ghirlandaio. The man with long black locks is Bastiano da San Gimignano, his disciple and brother-in-law and finally the one who beholds us with his hand on his hip is the artrist, Domenico Ghirlandaio himself.
The two Florentine women in the background perhaps resemble the Virgin Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth. The architectural setting is contemporary as well. It draws influence from the Ospedale di San Paolo (St. Paul’s Hospital) as well as other edifices of 15th century Florence.