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.’

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