“Vocation of the Apostles”
Artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio
Location: Sistine Chapel, Rome
Medium: Fresco (Pigment and Water on Fresh Plaster)
Dimensions: 349 cm × 570 cm (137 in × 220 in)
Domenico Ghirlandaio was born in 1449 in the town of Florence, Italy. He was born the son of a silk dealer and the oldest in a family of six children. He showed an interest in painting at a young age, as he would paint portraits of passer-bys outside of his father’s shop. For this reason, he was apprenticed to Alesso Baldovinetti to study painting and mosaic. He began to paint frescoes, and was highly admired for his skill. Pope Sixtus IV brought him to Rome in 1483 and commissioned him to paint a fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He went on to complete many other works, mainly in Florence and the Tuscany region, and died in 1494 of “pestilential fever.”
Like the “Temptations of Christ,” the “Vocation of the Apostles is a Wall Fresco located along the right side of the Sistine Chapel. (Look under the “Temptations of Christ” for a little more background on the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel). This “Vocation of the Apostles” is positioned across from the fresco of the Old Testament story of the crossing of the Red Sea. Once again, the connection between the two opposing frescoes draws a link between the Old Testament Moses and his perfect fulfillment in the character of Christ. In the “Crossing of the Red Sea,” Moses acts as an intermediate to deliver God’s people from their past imprisonment into a new life to call their own. Similarly, in the “Vocation of the Apostles,” Jesus calls the disciples from their past lives and encourages them to follow him in an entirely new life of discipleship, symbolic of the putting off of the “old man” and the taking on of the “new.”
The “Vocation of the Apostles,” which depicts the events of Matthew 4:18-22, takes place within a mountain valley setting and contains three scenes within the larger picture. In the smaller scene in distance on the left, Jesus stands on the shore and calls the fishermen Peter and Andrew with an outstretched hand to follow him as they sit in their fishing boat. On the opposite side of the shore, in the smaller scene at the right, the previously-called apostles Peter and Andrew stand behind Jesus as he calls two more apostles, James and John. James and John are bringing in their father’s fishing nets as they fish from their father Zebedee’s boat, and their activity in the lake is in the very center of the entire scene. The the central sub-scene Peter (in yellow) and Andrew (in green) kneel before Jesus, who blesses the two men with an extended arm. Behind Peter and Andrew are a large group of men and boys in more contemporary clothing, and it is said that their faces represent different Florentine people residing near the church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. To the left of Jesus stands an old bearded man, who is said to be representative of a literate of Constantinople. Due to the presence of striking similarities, it is suggested that Ghirlandaio used this man as a model to depict St. Jerome in his later painting “St. Jerome in His Study.” Between the literate and Jesus stands another man, who represents Diotisalvi Neroni, a man who had run to Rome and taken refuge there after plotting against Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici. Ghirlandaio alludes to one more person in this work: a man named John Argyropoulos. Argyropoulos was a theologian and philosopher who had taken refuge in Italy after Constantinople fell, and he is depicted with a white beard in the crowd on the right.
As this work was made in the late 1400s, it bears many characteristics that are typical of Renaissance and High Renaissance art. The fresco contains a clear vanishing point in the center of the scene, as the figures in the foreground are larger and the figures in the background gradually decrease in size as the lake gets smaller. The size of these figures is representative of a position in space rather than mere importance of each character. There is also a good deal of atmospheric pressure, which can be seen in the shadings and highlights cast by the light coming from behind the lake. Likewise, chiaroscuro can also be seen in the fresco, as the sunlight over the lake in the center of the image is contrasted with the dark trees, cliffs, and characters around the outer edges of the image. This chiaroscuro brings more focus to the central focal point of the work. Additionally, the side-by-side colors used in this fresco help to show the incorporation of the High Renaissance technique of sfumato, which is the shading and blending of tones.
I personally find this piece very interesting. I really like that Ghirlandaio was able to effectively combine three scenes into one larger one, which gives the fresco a large body and full composition. At a glance, one might just see the entire piece as one current scene (as I did when I saw it in the Sistine Chapel). However, upon closer look and examination one can see the three consecutively occurring events, in which Ghirlandaio very effectively captures the scenes depicted in Matthew 4.
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Doyle. Humanities 300 Lecture
Jean K. Cadogan, Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and artisan, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 14-15, 20.
Santi, Bruno (2001). “Ghirlandaio”. I protagonisti dell’arte italiana. Florence: Scala