Ghirlandaio painted these three captivating narrative scenes about 1479 for the base (predella) of an important altarpiece commissioned from his brother, Domenico, for the church of San Giusto alle Mura outside Florence. Two further scenes are known; the main panel is in the Uffizi in Florence.
According to legend, at the burial of Saint Zenobius a dead tree sprang to life when it was touched by the saint's bier. The baptistery and bell tower (campanile) of the cathedral of Florence provide the setting. Florence appears in the background of the scene where Tobias catches a fish whose innards will heal his father’s blindness.
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Fig. 1. Altarpiece reconstruction
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This panel and two others in The Met, together with another two in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the National Gallery, London, formed the predella of an important altarpiece painted by Ghirlandaio for the high altar of the church of San Giusto alle Mura, Florence. All five were still together in 1827, when they belonged to Johann Metzger in Florence (Rumohr 1827). The altarpiece is mentioned in 1510 by Albertini: "La tauola maiore di Domenico Gril[landaio]". Located in the area now occupied by Piazza Donatello, San Giusto belonged to the Jesuati (or Gesuati)—a lay order founded by Giovanni Colombini in 1367, the members of which performed charitable works. The church was originally dedicated to Saint Justus of Lyons (the fourth-century bishop of Lyons), a relic of whom was preserved in the church (the reliquary is now in the Museo del Opera del Duomo). It was demolished in 1529, during the siege of Florence, but Vasari gives an account of its contents in his life of Perugino (by whom there were three altarpieces): "At the summit, one mounted four stairs to an area measuring six braccia on which was the high altar with many ornaments carved of stone; and on the said altar there was placed an altarpiece with rich ornaments, as has been said, from the hand of Domenico Ghirlandaio." Subsequently, the altarpiece was transferred to the hospitaller church of San Giovannino (renamed San Giusto alle Calze) near the Porta Romana, and it was there that Vasari admired it, giving a detailed description in his life of Ghirlandaio. The predella is mentioned by Richa (1761).
The main panel of the altarpiece is in the Galleria degli Uffizi and has always been admired as one of Ghirlandaio’s finest achievements. Dating from 1479–80 (Cadogan 2000, p. 65), it shows the Madonna and Child enthroned, flanked by four youthful angels and two archangels with, on a lower level, two kneeling bishop saints. Left to right, these figures can be identified as Saint Michael the Archangel; Justus, the sixth-century bishop of Volterra; Zenobius, the fifth-century bishop and patron saint of Florence; and the Archangel Raphael, who holds the container with the ointment that cured Tobit’s blindness. The predella contained an episode from each saint’s legend and had at the center the marriage of the Virgin. To judge from the curved intrusions in each of the scenes, they were separated by roundels—much as in the predella of Ghirlandaio’s altarpiece at Rimini (see fig. 1 above for a reconstruction of the altarpiece). The scale was notably small, and this has made it difficult to arrive at a consensus regarding their authorship—whether, that is, they were painted by Ghirlandaio—"rare instances of Ghirlandaio’s style of painting in small scale" (Cadogan 2000, p. 251), or by an assistant, conceivably Domenico’s brother, Davide (unpublished opinion of Everett Fahy, 1993).
The Marriage of the Virgin follows the traditional iconography, with one of the unsuccessful suitors for Mary’s hand breaking his rod across his leg while Joseph holds his flowering rod—the miracle that won him the Virgin. The translation of the body of Saint Zenobius from San Lorenzo to the cathedral takes place before the baptistery and campanile of the cathedral of Florence, where a tree miraculously blossomed when touched by his bier (a column in the square of San Giovanni commemorates this miracle). In the final scene, the archangel Raphael instructs the youthful Tobias what to do with the fish he has caught; he will make an ointment to heal the blindness of his father, Tobit.
Keith Christiansen 2012
church of San Giusto alle Mura, Florence (by June 1486–1529); church of San Giovannino, later called San Giusto della Calza, Florence (1531–?about 1827); Johann Metzger, Florence (by 1827–about 1828 or later); M. J. Rhodes, England (until 1869); Henry Labouchere, Lord Taunton, Taunton, Somerset (until d. 1869); his daughter, Hon. Mary Dorothy Labouchere, Quantock Lodge, Bridgewater, Somerset (1869–1913; sold to Douglas and Horne); [R. Langton Douglas and Herbert P. Horne, London, 1913; sold to The Met]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Francesco Albertini. Memoriale di molte statue et picture. . . . Florence, 1510 [reprinted in "Five Early Guides to Rome and Florence," intro. by Peter Murray, Farnborough, England, 1972], mentions the altarpiece painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio for the Gesuati [see Notes].
Giorgio Vasari. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. Ed. Gaetano Milanesi. 1906 ed. Florence, 1568, vol. 3, pp. 257, 570, describes the altarpiece painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio for the Gesuati, and notes that it had been removed to the church of San Giovannino.
Francesco Bocchi. Le bellezze della città di Fiorenza. Florence, 1591, p. 63 [reprinted with intro. by John Shearman, Gregg International, London?, England, 1971], mentions the altarpiece as in the church of San Giovanni and attributes it to Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Francesco Bocchi. Le bellezze della città di Firenze. Florence, 1677, p. 126.
Giuseppe Richa. Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine. Vol. 9, Florence, 1761, p. 103, mentions the altarpiece and its predella as in San Giusto della Calza, and attributes it to Domenico Ghirlandaio.
C. F. von Rumohr. Italienische Forschungen. Vol. 2, Berlin, 1827, pp. 285, 287, attributes the predella to Sebastiano Mainardi.
C. F. von Rumohr. Letter to Bunsen. June 30, 1828 [published in F. Stock, "Rumohrs Briefe an Bunsen über Erwerbungen für das Berliner Museum," Jahrbuch der Preuszischen Kunstsammlungen 46 (1925) Beiheft p. 7], as probably by Sebastiano Mainardi.
C. F. von Rumohr. Letter to Bunsen. July 28, 1828 [published in F. Stock, "Rumohrs Briefe an Bunsen über Erwerbungen für das Berliner Museum," Jahrbuch der Preuszischen Kunstsammlungen 46 (1925) Beiheft p. 10].
B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "Panels by Botticini." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (October 1913), p. 214–15, ill., attributes the panels to Botticini.
Paul Erich Küppers. Die Tafelbilder des Domenico Ghirlandaio. Strasbourg, 1916, p. 87, publishes a document from 1486 that mentions Domenico Ghirlandaio's altarpiece for the Gesuati [see Notes], indicating that the work was completed and in place by that date.
Osvald Sirén. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures in the Jarves Collection Belonging to Yale University. New Haven, 1916, p. 122, under no. 44, attributes the panels to Botticini.
G[eorg]. Gronau. "Notes on Pictures in the National Gallery." Apollo 4 (August 1926), pp. 72–76, identifies the panels in London and Detroit [see Notes] as part of the predella of Domenico Ghirlandaio's altarpiece for San Giusto alle Mura, attributing them to an assistant though noting that the Detroit panel may be by Domenico himself; deduces possible subjects for the other three predella panels, then unknown to him.
Georg Gronau. "The Lost Predella of an Altarpiece by Domenico Ghirlandaio." Art in America 16 (December 1927), pp. 20, 25, figs. 2 (reconstruction), 5, reconstructs the San Giusto altarpiece with a predella composed of the MMA, London, and Detroit panels; illustrates them as by the shop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, stating "the composition of these individual panels may undoubtedly be attributed to the head of the Ghirlandajo workshop".
Walter Heil. Catalogue of Paintings in the Permanent Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts of the City of Detroit. Vol. 1, 1930, unpaginated, under no. 86, accepts Gronau's [see Ref. 1927] reconstruction.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 13, The Renaissance Painters of Florence in the 15th Century: The Third Generation. The Hague, 1931, pp. 53–55, accepts Gronau's [see Ref. 1927] reconstruction, attributing the Detroit panel to Domenico Ghirlandaio but the MMA and London panels to an assistant.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 225, lists the MMA panels as products of Domenico Ghirlandaio's workshop.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 194.
F. Mason Perkins. Letter. March 24, 1938, considers the MMA panels close in style to Domenico Ghirlandaio but not by him.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 52–54, ill., attributes the panels to Domenico Ghirlandaio and discusses them in relation to the London and Detroit panels as originally forming the predella to the San Giusto altarpiece.
Walter Paatz and Elisabeth Paatz. Die Kirchen von Florenz. Vol. 2, Frankfurt am Main, 1941, pp. 278, 282–83 n. 37, attribute the predella panels to Domenico Ghirlandaio and his shop.
Jan Lauts. Domenico Ghirlandajo. Vienna, 1943, p. 50, under no. 33, calls the panels part of the predella of the San Giusto altarpiece, and considers them essentially workshop products.
Martin Davies. The Earlier Italian Schools. London, 1951, pp. 169–171, under no. 2902, details the history of the San Giusto altarpiece and agrees that the MMA, London, and Detroit panels belonged to its predella, suggesting that they were partly or wholly executed by Domenico Ghirlandaio's assistants.
George Kaftal. Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting. Florence, 1952, col. 1041, attributes it to the shop of Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 42.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, p. 76.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 129–133, ill., attribute the predella to Domenico Ghirlandaio with possible workshop assistance; accept the reconstruction first advanced by Gronau [see Ref. 1927] and date the altarpiece 1480–85.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 83, 454, 606, as from the "school, shop, or studio" of Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Everett Fahy. Some Followers of Domenico Ghirlandajo. PhD diss., Harvard University. New York, 1976, p. 146, mentions the predella as an example of Domenico Ghirlandaio's style of small-scale painting.
Denys Sutton. "Robert Langton Douglas, Part III, XIV: Agent for the Metropolitan Museum." Apollo 109 (June 1979), pp. 421, 423, attributes the panels to Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Keith Christiansen. "Early Renaissance Narrative Painting in Italy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 41 (Fall 1983), p. 17, fig. 14 (color).
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 27, ill.
Jean K. Cadogan. Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan. New Haven, 2000, pp. 250–52, no. 28, fig. 236, attributes the predella to Domenico Ghirlandaio, following Fahy [see Ref. 1976], and dates the altarpiece to about 1479–80.
This panel comes from the predella of the altarpiece commissioned from Domenico Ghirlandaio by the Gesuati for their church of San Giusto alle Mura. The predella also included the Marriage of the Virgin (The Met, 13.119.1), Tobias and the Angel (The Met, 13.119.3), the Fall of the Rebel Angels (Detroit Institute of Arts), and Saint Justus Distributing Bread (National Gallery, London). The main panel (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) represents the Madonna and Child Enthroned with the Archangel Michael, Saints Justus and Zenobius, and the Archangel Raphael (see Gronau 1927 for reconstruction).
The altarpiece is mentioned in a contract of June 6, 1486 commissioning Antonio di Sangallo to copy the design of its frame for another work by Ghirlandaio now in the Galleria dello Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence (see Küppers 1916 and Cadogan 2000).
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