By Joynel Fernandes –
Born as by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian for garland maker) during 1481 – 82 , he was apprenticed to a goldsmith but alas, he soon discovered that it was not his calling. Nature had something more charming in store. She lured him by her perfect wit to seek his marvellous and judicious taste in painting. He went on to become one of the most excellent masters of his age; his student, the Master of Masters.
We are navigating the life and art of a self taught and inspirational 15th century Florentine painter namely Domenico Ghirlandaio. And who worthier could resonate his brilliance than his renowned pupil Michelangelo.
Ghirlandaio had his every sense to detail. His scheme of composition was grand; his canvas, decorous; his drawing, precise and his colour, creative. According to Vasari, so perceptive was his perspective that he could draw the ancient Roman monuments entirely by eye, which when later measured would prove to have mathematically accurate proportions and linear perspective.
His skill of story-telling was sensational as well. Ghirlandaio often employed the technique to depict a religious narrative within a contemporary setting. This also included several powerful portraits. It provided him great popularity and wealthy patrons.
One such colossal commission was the call from Rome. In the 1480’s, Pope Sixtus IV invited the who’s who of the art world to decorate the newly built Sistine Chapel. Ghirlandaio too received an important task of painting the calling of Peter and Andrew to their Apostleship.
The painting traverses in time to the Gospel of Mark Chapter 1: verses 14 to 20. The narrative enfolds at the background. We are located by the Sea of Galilee. Hemmed by hills, it is often subject to storms. Home to over 40 aquatic species, fishes from this lake were exported all through the Roman Empire. But there was something special about its fishermen, or at least about four of them.
Perhaps it was a day like any other day: the same sea, the same boat and the same net. But breezing across were winds of change. As Peter and his brother Andrew sat casting their nets, there walked Jesus pronouncing His prominent words, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’. Their response was quick and immediate. They left their nets and followed Him.
Scene 2 is set on the shallow stage of the foreground. At the center stands Christ in benediction. He commissions his newly appointed apostles: Peter (hands crossed in openness and acceptance) and Andrew (hands joined in prayer). As the apostles humbly kneel in adoration their ‘calling’ is witnessed and discussed upon by crowds of onlookers. Nay, they aren’t Jewish. They are the members of the most influential Florentine families. Let’s catch up with them.
Conspicuously dressed in velvet black, the noble portrait of Lorenzo Tornabuoni at once beholds our attention. Right behind him is his affluent father Giovanni Tornabuoni. He represents the Medici’s merchant bank and business. Giovanni was also appointed the Treasurer to the Pope. His term served to be a link between Pope Sixtus IV and the Medicis especially during their turbulent antagonism. Giovanni was also a great patron to many of Ghirlandaio’s art works.
Moving forward to the right we encounter the white bearded humanist John Argyropoulos. Now John Argyropoulos was a pioneer of Greek classical learning and wrote commentaries on Aristotle. He fled to Florence at the fall of Constantinople in 1453. A highly regarded friend of the Medici’s, he spent 15 years as a court scholar and a professor of Greek at the University. The Pope soon summoned him to Rome.
Poised besides him is a nobleman with white hair and no hat. This is ascertained to be either Francesco Soderini (a Church diplomat from Florence) or Raimondo Orsini (a nobleman from the kingdom of Naples). The young lad behind him, with a bright demeanour, is assumed to be Antonio Vespucci (the famous Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer).
Let’s now progress to the group on the left. At the far end are seen three immaculate maidens. They intently hearken the words of a figure in blue. While blue symbolizes divinity, the three maidens exemplify the virtues of faith, hope and charity. As we draw closer to Christ we are greeted by yet another philosopher, a clergyman and a doctor.
The last scene is spread across the background. It illustrates the call of the next two apostles: John and his brother James. They were busy mending their nets when Jesus and their fishing partners (Peter and Andrew) walked towards them. They looked up in surprise. At the spur of that moment their father Zebedee in all his wisdom at once blessed them. Jesus called and they left everything and followed Him. Heaven was happy.
As we gaze upwards, a host of birds catch our attention. While the quails signify self sacrifice, the hawk attacking the duck announces the imminent victory of eternal joy over earthly pleasure. It proclaims the struggle, the magic and the fulfilment of every call.
The charm of this canvas lies at the horizon. As the river winds its way across the land, the heavens and the earth meet at a radiant realm. There, at that meeting, blooms the essence of a vocation, a vocation rooted in an encounter between ‘a search’ and ‘the Spirit’. An encounter of discovery and growth; an encounter animated by freedom to further freedom. May your encounter persevere in prayer and flourish in fruit. Amen.
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Joynel Fernandes is the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai. She is currently pursuing her Masters in History. Researching on Church History and Church art is her passion. She hopes to make its understanding more approachable to the younger generation.