Benozzo Gozzoli and assistants
Detached frescoes and sinopias (preliminary sketches)
Castelfiorentino, BeGo Museum - The Benozzo Gozzoli Museum
The tabernacle, originally on the Via Volterrana, opposite the convent of Santa Maria della Marca in Castelfiorentino, was painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1491, with the collaboration of his sons Francesco and Alesso. This was documented in 1637 by Cosimo Bindi, who was at that time the confessor of the nuns. Bindi also informs us that the patron was the Venerable Priest Messer Grazia, the same patron who in 1484 had entrusted Benozzo with the decoration of the tabernacle of Castelnuovo. The frescoes, arranged on two registers and interspersed with painted architectural elements, depict episodes of the life of the Virgin which were taken from the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Gospel according to St Luke.
The story begins with the story of Joachim, the father of Mary, who has gone to the temple to offer incense to the Lord, but is dismissed by the priest as punishment for his infertility which, in the Jewish tradition, was considered as a sign of God's curse. Continuing from left to right, there is the Dream of Joachim, who, full of shame, wanders away to live with the shepherd and his flock in a far away land, leaving his wife Anne for several months without word. After a few days, an Angel calls on him to return home, revealing to him that, by the grace of God, Anne will conceive a daughter. Joachim then offers an immaculate lamb in thanksgiving, but then falls into a deep sleep. Whilst he is sleeping he has another vision of the Angel and so when he wakes he calls to the shepherds who encourage him to return home to reunite with his beloved wife and so Joachim decides to return home. In the meantime Anna, who is also visited by the Angel, goes out to meet her husband. On the rear facade of the tabernacle, in the upper register, Anne is depicted, accompanied by her friends at the Porta Aurea, (The Golden Gate) where she embraces Joachim who has returned with his flock.
Anna and Joachim were able to conceive Mary, the future mother of Jesus and the right side of the tabernacle shows the scene with the Nativity of the Virgin. The narration then resumes counterclockwise along the lower register, where the paintings have, unfortunately, been damaged by time. In 1844 a trompe l'oeil altarpiece was still visible. It depicted the Madonna enthroned with the Child between the standing saints Peter, Stephen, Paul and Lawrence, and, kneeling, Saints Claire and Frances. It also showed the Visitation, the Nativity Scene and the Adoration of the Magi .
These scenes were completely lost in 1872, with the exception of the crib scene which was partially preserved until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1965, despite the numerous initiatives which had been undertaken since the mid-nineteenth century in an attempt to deal with the extreme dampness which was due to frequent floods, it was considered appropriate to detach the frescoes and submit them for careful restoration. During the removal of the paintings - performed with the 'strappo' detachment technique - some preparatory drawings, the beautiful sinopias, were discovered on the wall of the tabernacle. Benozzo Gozzoli had made them in order to set the composition of the scenes he was later to paint.