Saturday, January 7, 2012


Adoration of the Magi, Filippino Lippi, 1496, oil on panel, Uffizi gallery, Florence.
The Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th of January in the Christian calendar, the day dedicated to the adoration of the Magi of the newborn Christ baby. This was an event celebrated with magnificent pomp and ceremony in fifteenth century Florence. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek, meaning ‘manifestation’ and refers to the physical manifestation of God the son as a human being to the Gentiles, the three wise men. They bring gifts to the Christ child which reflect their understanding of his dual nature; gold, frankincense and myrrh, as symbols of Christ’s regality, sacredness and death, respectively. Over time, the wise men developed more individualised and elaborate symbolism.  Casper, Balthazar and Melchior were often represented as the three main ages of life, and of three ethnic backgrounds.

Adoration of the Magi,  Andrea Mantegna, 1495-1500, oil on canvas, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
If figurative representation is taken to be an indication of popularity, there were few other cities in Italy which gave such importance to the 6th January, so many are the paintings of the Adoration of the Magi in Florence from this period by some of the greatest artists, commissioned by some of the most important families. The most spectacular example of the subject is the frescoed chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459-60, commissioned by Piero the Gouty de’ Medici.

Detail of the back and left wall, when looking at the altar, of the private chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.
Frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli 1459-60, commissioned by Piero the Gouty de' Medici. 
The date of the Epiphany held even more importance for the Florentines, as it was also the day which John the Baptist, the patron saint of the city, would baptise his second cousin in the Jordon long after the Magi had visited him. This event is now celebrated in the Western church eight days after the Epiphany, on January 13, but in the Orthodox church it is celebrated on 6 January.

A Florentine lay confraternity dedicated to the three wise men (who over time become represented as kings with ever increasing symbolism) staged a re-enactment of the their journey to find the new born Jesus, the King of Kings, every few years. The confraternity was in existence from 1390, the earliest documentary evidence, when the pageant was recorded by a by-stander. It was dissolved with the expulsion of the Medici family in 1494, the ruling family being one of the longstanding active patrons of the confraternity.

2012 re-enactment of the Magi procession
The Compagnia dei Magi, staged a spectacular re-enactment of the story, using most of the city as the stage, every few years. A chronicler recorded that there seven hundred costumed men in the 1429 pageant. Herod’s palace was at the San Romolo church in the piazza della Signoria (now where Rivoire cafe is located), and then the hundreds of horsemen (the entourage for the Magi), and colourful floats with mini skits connected to the history of Florence, such as David and Goliath, make their way to Bethlehem, recreated in piazza San Marco. From the cathedral square or canto di San Giovanni (canto means ‘corner’) along the via Larga (now via Cavour) finishing in San Marco, the street was lined with grandstands, benches and boxes decorated with bunting, rugs and backing.

The pageant didn’t follow a precise route every time, nor a fixed narrative.  In the 1419 pageant, after the Magi visited Bethlehem they came back to the cathedral square where the Massacre of the Innocents was staged. So great and spectacular was the parade, the Compagnia de’ Magi were also called on by the Signoria (the government of the Republic of Florence) to stage re-enactments in times other than the Epiphany. One such time was in 1439, towards the end of the great ecumenical council that Florence had been hosting for the past few years. The most important leaders of the Orthodox and Western churches, their entourages and intellectuals, were all in the city. The splendid Festa dei Magi was included into the Festa di San Giovanni, the week-long festival held for St John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint. 

For four generations, the Medici capo di famiglia (head of family) were members of the Compagnia de Magi. In the 1459 pageant, the future Lorenzo the Magnificent, then ten years old, was an active participant. The subject was chosen by his father as the decoration of the chapel in their nearly completed Renaissance merchant home. This was the first private chapel in a private home in Italy. The underlining message here was that the Medici family were the kings of Florence in all but name and the republic was something of the past. The fresco was exquisitely executed.  Benozzo Gozzoli had trained under the sublime Dominican Observant friar, Fra Angelico in the San Marco monastery years before, another Medici funded project. The colours have a jewel-like quality and the costumes have a tactility about them that makes you want to reach out and touch them . 

Detail of the back wall in the Medici chapel, Balthazar, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-60, fresco, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. 

A Magi is depicted on each wall with their accompanying entourage.  These are like the social pages of Hello! Magazine, the leading allies of the Medici family, both domestic and foreign, clearly discernible. The background is similar for all three, a running landscape with lush green hills, prime for hunting (a favourite pastime of the family), dotted with castle-villas.

Detail of right wall when facing the altar, Melchior and entourage, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-60, fresco, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Portrait of Cosimo the Elder dressed in black riding a donkey behind the Youngest Magi, his son, Piero the Gouty, to the right on a white horse. Riding a horse in the far left corner is Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, and next to him is Galeazzo Sforza, intended future ruler of Milan.  
They too all arrive, prima o poi (sooner or later), at the Christ baby to adore him, a Filippo Lippi Madonna and child (now replaced with a copy, the original is in Berlin).

Adoration of the child,  Filippo Lippi, 1459, tempera on panel, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Freya
    A excellent post , very much enjoyed reading it particularly your point about the Medici being by implication Kings of Florence.