SN 24, oil on panel

Francesco Granacci
Italian, 1469-1543 c1515

From "The Pages"

Granacci was active mainly around Florence. He trained there with Michelangelo in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, being considerably influenced by his fellow pupil. Other influences include Fra Bartolommeo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Pontormo.

A Christian legend tells that St Thomas was the apostle who wanted proof of the Virgin’s Assumption, the term used to denote the taking up to Heaven of Mary’s soul and body three days after her death. The Virgin lowered her belt (cintola) as proof to “doubting Thomas.” The legend continues: a crusader returned to Prato (a town near Florence) from the Holy Land with the belt, which had been given as dowry to his wife, the daughter of a Greek priest in Jerusalem. The belt was deposited in the Cappella della Sacratissima Cintola in Prato, which accounts for the popularity of this subject in Florentine painting.

click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The men in the painting are [from the left]:
•    St John the Baptist, who foretold Christ’s coming and baptized him. He is considered to be the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the first of the New. Frequently seen in Florentine art, he is the patron Saint of Florence. He is recognized here by his camel hair shirt and reed cross.
•    St James, along with Peter and John, was one of the three apostles closest to Christ, present at the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden; brother to St John the Evangelist and son of Zebedee, a fisherman of Galilee. Patron saint of Spain, he is said to be buried at Compostella, Spain. Also called the Greater or Elder.
•    St Thomas (see above). He also doubted Christ’s resurrection until convinced by sight and touch.
•    St Laurence, in charge of the church’s treasures in the 3rd century, was instructed by the Pope to give them to the poor. When the Roman Prefect demanded the treasure, Laurence told him the poor were the church’s treasures. He was punished by being roasted on a gridiron [shown at his side], during which martyrdom he is supposed to have said “I’m done on one side, now turn me over.”
•    St Bartholomew, another apostle, is said to have traveled as far as India. While preaching in Armenia he was seized by heathens, flayed alive, then crucified. Thus one of his attributes is a flaying knife, seen here under the book he is holding.

In Renaissance and later painting an Assumption composition was portrayed in two or three elements, one positioned above the others. The Virgin is shown in mid-air, standing or enthroned, being carried to Heaven by angels, who sometimes play instruments. She may be surrounded by a halo (aureole), which radiance seems to emanate from Her. Below on the ground may be a group of saints, including Doubting Thomas, arranged in a Sacra Conversazione [sacred conversation among persons who did not actually live at the same time]. They may be grouped around the Virgin’s empty tomb, which is filled with lilies or roses. The third element ( not always present) is the image of God above the Virgin.

After spending a short time in Rome, where he assisted Michelangelo in painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Granacci returned to Florence. There he executed this painting for the Medici chapel in San Piero Maggiore. It reflects the contemporary Florentine style.

Vasari described it as Granacci’s masterpiece, saying that the figure of St. Thomas could have been painted by Michelangelo himself. Vasari was the leading biographer of the Italian Renaissance artists, and his book, Lives of the Artists, shaped attitudes toward this period for centuries to follow.

Additional Bibliography
James Hill, Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1974
George Ferguson, Signs & symbols in Christian Art, Oxford University Press, London, 1954

Museum Label:
The Assumption of the Virgin
c. 1515
Artist: Francesco Granacci
Italian, 1469-1543, active in Florence

Oil on wood panel, 90 x 81 in. (228.6 x 205.7 cm)

According to Christian legend, the Virgin gave her belt, or girdle, to Saint Thomas upon her Assumption. Said to be housed in a chapel in the city of Prato, this holy relic was particularly popular in nearby Florence. This painting was commissioned for the family chapel of the Medici, the city's most powerful and prosperous clan, in the church of San Piero Maggiore, Florence. The work was extravagantly praised by the sixteenth-century critic Giorgio Vasari. He wrote that the figures of Saint Thomas and the Virgin were so full of grace that they were worthy of Michelangelo. Indeed, the poses of these figures recall the powerful, three-dimensional forms of Michelangelo's paintings.

Bequest of John Ringling, 1936, SN24