The Magi Chapel is the chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi of Florence, Italy. Its wall are almost entirely covered by a famous cycle of frescoes by the Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli, painted in 1459-1461 for the Medici family, the effective rulers of Florence.
The chapel is on the piano nobile of the palace, and was one of the first decorations executed after the completion of the building, designed by Michelozzo. Gozzoli painted his cycle over three of the walls. The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem is covered in three large frescos, each showing the procession of one of the Three Magi on their way to Bethlehem to see the Nativity of Jesus. The religious theme was combined with a depiction of several members of the Medici family and their allies, and also some of the important people who arrived in Florence for the Council of Florence (1438-1439) several decades earlier. On that occasion the Medici could boast to have facilitated the (abortive, as it turned out) reconciliation between the Catholic and the Byzantine churches. The luxury of the Byzantine dignitaries is manifest, and shows the impression they would have at the time on the Florentine population.
In the apse the sides walls are painted with saints and angels in adoration, where Gozzoli followed the style of his master, Fra Angelico. The altarpiece was Filippo Lippi's Adoration of the Christ Child, which was painted for this position. This is now in Berlin, with a copy by a follower of Lippi now in the chapel. There are also three thin vertical fresco sections showing the shepherds of the nativity. In the 17th century, parts of the frescoes were destroyed to create access for a new staircase, where the entrance now is.
The lively colors and details of the frescoes are backed by the precious mosaics of the pavement, the gilted ceiling and the wooden stalls designed by Giuliano da Sangallo.
Journey of the Magi
Gozzoli portrayed rich Tuscan landscapes, probably influenced by Early Netherlandish artists - perhaps via tapestries, which Piero the Gouty, who commissioned the frescoes, collected. Members of the Medici family and their entourage are shown riding in the foreground of the fresco on the east wall.
Caspar, the youngest Magus, leads the procession on a white horse - this figure has often been taken for Lorenzo il Magnifico, who was born in 1449 and so was still a boy when the fresco was completed; he is more likely portrayed by another figure. Closely following Caspar are the contemporary head of the family, Piero the Gouty, on a white horse and devout family founder Cosimo on a humble donkey. Then come Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, respectively lord of Rimini and Milan: they did not take part in the Council, but were guests of the Medici in Florence in the time the frescoes were painted. After them is a procession of illustrious Florentines, such as the humanists Marsilio Ficino and the Pulci brothers, the members of the Art Guilds and Benozzo himself. The painter looks out at the viewer and can be recognized for the scroll on his red hat, reading Opus Benotii. Little Lorenzo il Magnifico is the boy directly below him with the distinctive snub nose; Lorenzo's elder brother Giuliano is next to him.
Bearded Balthasar, the middle Magus, rides a white horse on the south wall. He is portrayed with the same facial features as Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. (It was once thought that the three pages behind him represented Piero's daughters, but the faces of those young women are more likely to be amongst the rest of the Medici portraits.)
Melchior, the oldest Magi, rides on the west wall. Traditionally, his features have been read as those of Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, who died in Florence during the Council; but they could also be those of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, who helped end the Great Schism by convoking the Council of Constance in 1414. Like Cosimo, he is shown as a peacemaker riding on a donkey. He is preceded by a page in blue with a leopard on his horse - although he leads the entire procession, no real world identity for this figure has ever been ascertained.
Gozzoli's patron, Piero de' Medici, felt some of the seraphim were unsuitable, and wanted them painted over. Although the artist agreed to do this, it was never actually done.
- Flagellation of Christ (Piero della Francesca) - another painting featuring contemporary portraits, the identities of which have been hotly debated.
- Cardini, Franco (2001). The Chapel of the Magi in Palazzo Medici. Florence: Mandragora.
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