AVE MARIA: ‘The Nativity of Mary’ by Ghirlandaio

AVE MARIA: ‘The Nativity of Mary’ by Ghirlandaio

 Florence during the 15th century boasted of more artists than butchers. It signified that art was a necessity. It was a need driven by 2 P’s: Passion and Power. Passion on the part of the artist and Power on the part of the wealthy bankers who commissioned religious art as penance for usury which the Church condemned but which was ingrained to their profession.

One such powerful banker and patron of art was Giovanni Tornabuoni. He served as the Florentine ambassador to the Papal court in 1480 and 1484. As remission for his sins he decided to commission a grand cycle of frescoes in what is now the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

He got on board one of the most famous artist in town: Domenico Ghirlandaio. The theme was dedicated to the life of the Virgin and the life of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. Ghirlandaio worked on the frescoes from 1485 to 1490. One of his best known works is undoubtedly, ‘The Nativity of Mary.’

The scene is set in a luxurious Renaissance room within an intricate architectural setting. The relief carving of fruits and foliage announces spring-time. A frieze of cherubs garlands the fringes while ornate pilasters divide the room into two halves, the before and the after. The story goes thus:

In Nazareth lived a pious couple Joachim and Hannah. They were childless. On being repulsed by the high priest in the temple, Joachim in grief took off to the mountains in solitude. Hannah too cried out to the Lord, promising to dedicate her child to the service of the Almighty. Behold, then appeared the angel declaring the nativity.

The first scene of the painting at the left displays the embrace of Joachim and Anne as they reunite at the Golden Gate. Scene two is the bed chamber where St. Anne gives birth to the clement, loving and sweet Virgin Mary. A panel of cherubs rejoice with music and dance to the tunes of the harp, the bagpipe, the timbrel and the organetto. As they delight at her birth, a Latin inscription at their feet proclaims, ‘Thy birth, O Virgin and Mother of God, brings joy to all the world.’

As St Anne reclines, three young women prepare to bathe the new born. While the first pours water into the tub, the second cradles the infant. Next to her in adoration is the influential writer, political advisor and the sister in law of the patron: Lucrezia Tornabuoni. But that’s not all. We have guest too!

The gaze of St. Anne, Lucrezia Tornabuoni and the little baby propels us to notice yet another noble. She is the daughter of the patron, Ludovica Tornabuoni. Her rigid appearance forms a stark contrast to the graceful fluttering maid pouring water. Her stiff neck supports her small head with blonde hair and curls at her cheek.

Her dignified demeanor is clothed in a giornea, a wealthy women’s wear in Florence. It is adorned with heraldic motifs. This includes a unicorn (virginity) kneeling before a dove (purity). Her entourage consist of well dressed Florentine women on a congratulatory visit.

The most spectacular aspect of the painting is the play of light and shadow. Notice that the room is not illuminated by lamps or candles. Rather light emerges through a window in the chamber, deceiving the spectator. It captivates the first panel of cherubs and shadows the other. Allegorically it symbolizes the sublime presence of the Divine.

The story of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is known from the apocryphal literature such as the Protoevangelium of St. James. The origins of this feast traces to the 6th century, when after the Council of Ephesus the devotion towards the Mother of God intensified. Mary’s birth proclaimed the day break of salvation. She is the ‘blessed among women’ to become the Mother of the Messiah. She bore the heartbeat of God. And thus for ages, together with the angels, in chorus we sing: ‘AVE MARIA!’

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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