I have a real soft spot for the Church of Ognissanti – it’s easily my favourite Church in Florence. Not only is it home to Saint Jerome in His Study by Ghirlandaio but also Botticelli’s Saint Augustine in His Study, which is opposite. Add to that Ghirlandaio’s fresco of the Last Supper in the neighbouring refectory and Giotto’s beautifully restored Crucifix; it really is a little treasure trove. Just imagine Giotto’s Madonna and Child at the altar which was commissioned for the church (now at the Uffizi) and you can’t even imagine how atmospheric the church was.
The two frescoes were originally in the area by the choir, but this was demolished in the 18th century, and the paintings were removed and hung in the nave. They show us a conversation between the two Saints, and a conversation between the two artists which produced them. The two very different works intertwine so beautifully, and the relationship between them is so intimate that they complement each other in such a way which makes the two individual frescoes even more enjoyable to sit between. They were both commissioned by the Vespucci family in 1480, and gives the viewer a chance to see how different the artists interpreted the stories of the Saints, their very different personal styles, and how they were both influenced by other artists at the time.
Ghirlandaio – Saint Jerome sits in his study, writing at his desks as he rests his head on his hand. His focus is not on what he writes, but right at us as the viewer. Compared to Botticelli, the style of this fresco is very lifelike with much concentration on the still life objects in the room. It can be compared to Jan van Eyck’s Saint Jerome in His Study, which in fact was in the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The desk on which he writes is covered by an luxurious oriental carpet, another nod to the artists from the Netherlands. His many books with Greek and Hebrew lettering show his contribution to the translation of the Bible, and other objects each with symbolic meanings include a cardinal hat, an hour glass, a candle holder, scissors, fruit, a sealed letter, ink pots, a ruler, a necklace, vases and glass bottles. Notice Jerome’s shadow and how the objects on the desk illuminate, which confirms the light coming from the upper right corner. Unlike Botticelli, there is no reference to the family which commissioned the piece, which is a little odd.
Botticelli – This was Botticelli’s first major fresco, which is why the artist spent a great deal of time working on it; wanting to prove his capability to Florence. The story is that Saint Augustine was in his study, when he suddenly receives a vision of Saint Jerome’s death. Botticelli shows us Saint Augustine’s reaction to hearing the news, and cleverly depicts the transition between 2 moments in time. Augustine is clearly writing at his desk, when he is caught in a moment of surprise as he sees the vision. He is straightening up, placing a hand upon his chest and his gaze has shifted up. The light falling around him symbolises the rays of the vision. This piece clearly shows Botticelli’s expressive style, and a clear comparison from works by Andrea del Castagno. Also of note is the Coat of Arms of the Vespucci family in the upper part of the fresco, the clock indicates the first hour after sunset – the time Saint Jerome is said to have died. Inside one of the books, Botticelli has included a text which perhaps quotes a conversation between 2 monks overheard by Botticelli as he worked on the fresco: In one of the books it reads “Where is Brother Mariano?”-“He has gone off for a moment”-“Where has he gone?”-“He left the city via the Porta al Prato”. It’s believed that this could be Botticelli poking fun at the Ognissanti Brethen; as they were supposedly less inclined to study and meditate than the Saints Jerome and Augustine.
There’s so much more to discover about these 2 frescoes and the 2 artists – let me know if you have any other opinions or views on what Ghirlandaio and Botticelli produced!