Magdalene Chapel Frescoes

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Magdalene Chapel Frescoes

Built between 1316 and 1322, the Magdalene Chapel served as a holding space in the Bargello Palace, where those convicted of serious crimes received their last rites and awaited execution. Also referred to as the Cappella del Podestà, the chapel is located in the northeast corner of the first floor of the ancient civic building. The walls of the chapel were decorated with vibrant frescoes of the Afterlife, discovered under a coat of whitewash in 1840 and immediately attributed to the hand of Giotto after a controversial restoration project added touch-ups to confirm such an attribution. Painted sometime between 1322 and 1337, the cycle features the remnants of what must have been a vivid scene of Hell on the entrance wall and an image of Christ Enthroned in the Celestial Court on the altar wall opposite it. Lateral walls linking the two contain scenes from the lives of John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, respectively.

One striking feature within the chapel is the apparent absence of a Last Judgment scene, despite the dual representations of Heaven and Hell on opposite sides of the room. This absence may have been due to the chapel’s function as a penal site and the intended viewership of this cycle. Condemned criminals spent their final hours in the chapel after receiving their sentence from a court tribunal, and during their final moments on Earth were invited to decide which fate to embrace for the duration of eternity. To assist them in this process, members of the Arch-confraternity of Santa Maria della Croce al Tempio joined them in the chapel and attended to their spiritual and physical needs as they accepted their confessions. Surely, some conversations about the penance of the Magdalene and the Baptist’s decapitation must have occurred while gazing up at the frescoes that illustrated the lives and deaths of those canonized Christian heroes. The lay brothers then assisted the condemned during the procession through Florentine streets to the gallows beyond the church of S. Croce, offering words of solace and invitations for repentance along the way as the executioner awaited their arrival.

The iconography of the Magdalene Chapel was inspired by the function of the space. Having been judged by the commune, the condemned entered the chapel to receive his (or, occasionally, her) last rites and contemplate the fate of their souls, with the options of Heaven and Hell displayed upon the walls. A portrait once believed to be of the famous Italian poet Dante can be seen standing among the figures of Heaven. The North wall of the chapel retains only two of the original scenes from the life of John the Baptist, The Naming of the Baptist and The Feast of Herod. If the cycle was based on the mosaic in the south end of the Baptistery’s ceiling, it may have included an image of John’s imprisonment or his beheading, or both. As the patron saint of Florence, his presence in the Magdalene chapel marked the civic space as a zone protected by its holy advocate, but also reminded the condemned that the Baptist, too, had been executed for his crime. Mary Magdalene’s life cycle, covering the South wall of the chapel and extending to the North wall, also referred to the themes of vice, penance, and redemption, albeit in a much less violent way than seen in the cycle of the Baptist. As the patron saint of sinners, the cycle of her repentance and subsequent salvation set an example upon the walls of the chapel for every sinner who entered the chapel for their last rites.

Bibliography

Bent, George. Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Elliott, Janis. “The Judgement of the Commune: The Frescoes of the Magdalen Chapel in Florence,” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte 61 (1998), 509–19.

Erhardt, Michelle A. “The Magdalene as Mirror: Trecento Franciscan Imagery in the Guidalotti-Rinuccini Chapel, Florence,” Mary Magdalene, Iconographic Studies from the Middle Ages to the Baroque (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Yunn, Amee. “The Bargello: A New History of the First Communal Palace of Florence, 1255–1346.” Ph.D dissertation, New York University, 2008.