Ghirlandaio’s Birth of St John the Baptist (1486-90)

Inside Santa Maria Novella, one of the great churches of Florence, an important chapel is entirely frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his assistants with episodes from the life of St. John the Baptist. With over 5,900 square feet of painting it is said to have required "a small army of assistants and apprentices." Notably, one of the latter was almost certainly the 13-year old Michelangelo who was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio in 1488.1 The chapel is Ghirlandaio's masterpiece. In the scene below of John's birth we will talk about the woman on the far right. To do so, though, needs context.

John himself is hardly the focus of this composition; his mother is. He's not key because Ghirlandaio's interest, to my mind, is creation in general. John's birth is just a visual refrence to a deeper but not necessarily religious meaning. For Christians, creation is the world and all in it; but for artists, their own conception is creation on a smaller scale as is their craft. We too create or, more precisely, self-create as God did. He made man in his own image just as we imagine others. This impacts both our perception of events and our behavior. Art tells us that, like artists, we continually paint and re-paint ourselves in a variety of roles (father, husband, employee, athlete, whatever) and subtly suggests we should do it better by painting and performing each character to perfection.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Birth of St. John the Baptist (1486-90) Fresco. Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Bottom: Detail of above.

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Looking at some details, two women stand to the right of the bed. The older, perhaps to represent wisdom, takes precedence. She rests her hands, symbols of art's craft, on her womb. That is intentional because as we often show sexual conception is a common metaphor for an artist's mental conception and, if as I believe, the drapery is also eye-shaped, it signifies the inner eye of his mind as well, the organ of creative imagination.2

The other woman seems to represent the craft that derives from that wisdom and imagination because her active arm is like a parallel extension of the other woman's. And, with her palm facing us, she actually "paints" the very image we see in a never-ending creation.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist

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Now to what first caught my attention, the woman in white. She enters oddly with a platter of fruit on her head, her drapery billowing artificially (top left). The latter is reminiscent of the loose-hanging, wind-blown garments I have shown in Raphael's Sistine Madonna (1512) and The Expulsion of Heliodorus (1511-12) (top center/ top right). Both those are shaped into an R for Raphael (images below them). Online too is an 18th-century example, the billowing R for George Romney's initial in The Clavering Children (bottom). The trouble is, though, Domenico Ghirlandaio has no initial R

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist
Center and below: Detail and diagram of Raphael's Sistine Madonna
Top R and below: Detail and diagram of Raphael's Expulsion of Heliodorus
Bottom L & R: Detail and diagram of Romney's The Clavering Children
 

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What is unlikely to have been noticed is that just as free-flowing fabric spells R in paintings by Raphael and Romney so the veil with the similarly colored line of the doorway behind it spells D for Domenico (top). Veils often signify veiled meaning while doors in art can symbolize the passageway between one state-of-mind to another, interior to exterior, divine to physical and vice versa.3 Beyond her door (bottom), off to the right, is the world that Domenico and his contemporaries lived in. On this side, we see the scene onstage, inside the artist's mind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail and diagram of Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist
Bottom: Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist

Click image to enlarge.

Now for the kicker. The name Ghirlandaio means "garland-maker" and derives from Domenico's father, a goldsmith who made garlands of gold wreaths for women's heads.3 Other writers have thus convincingly argued that the various garlands in Domenico's work refer to his own name. Here the fruit is shaped into a garland not only to add his patronymic to the D of Domenico but to suggest that the fruit of her fertile thought emerges from her head like art from his. She represents him and the androgynous mind of a great master by combining her femininity with his masculine identity.4 The gold of the platter beneath not only refers to his name and his father's trade but implies that her/his mind is divine by encircling her head like a halo. Of course, as always, there's so much more to see in this picture but I leave that to you to work out. Remember while you do so: think differently.











 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (New York: Random House) 2012, p. 21

2. See the many examples under the theme Conception (Mental and Sexual). As for the eye, note how the drapery folds artificially with a brow-like fold above.

3. The most prominent user of the door motif may have been Albrecht Dürer whose name derives from a word for door. His monograms sometimes resemble a door and the coat-of-arms he designed for himself includes one: Phillip Fehl, “Dürer’s Literal Presence in his Pictures: Reflections on his Signatures in the Small Woodcut Passion”, Künstler über sich in seinem Werk, ed. M. Winner (Weinheim: VCT Acta humanoria) 1992, p. 193; See the post "Still-lifes by Core and Peale" (May 2015) for a list of artists who have made visual puns on their name. 

4. See the theme Androgyny for further explanation. 

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 09 Jan 2016. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.