The Altarpieces of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494): Between Heaven and Earth, Faith and Art

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This dissertation examines the altarpiece paintings of the late fifteenth-century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94). While Ghirlandaio’s frescoes have often been studied as paradigms of portraiture and visual narrative, the artist’s 12 surviving altarpiece paintings have received little attention, despite Ghirlandaio’s status as one of the major figures in the history of Renaissance painting. This study is the first comprehensive and contextual investigation of Ghirlandaio’s altarpieces, and one of the first to consider his works on panel outside questions of attribution. My analysis utilizes archival discoveries, alongside focused examinations into the identities of patrons, the commission histories of these works, the original locations of the altarpieces, and the paintings’ diverse sacred iconography.

Organized around a range of case studies that include altarpieces for religious orders, cathedrals, civic hospitals, and private patrons, this dissertation also demonstrates the purposes and uses of altarpieces, revealing how this persistent type functioned as a form of visual and sacred power. Altarpieces visualize and index the divine presence contained and invoked at the altar, while also drawing the beholder fully into that presence. As a vehicle between the visible and the invisible, the altarpiece was the perfect means by which artists could explore the challenges of naturalism and mimesis, illusion and the imagination. Rather than seeing artists and their altarpieces as simply reflecting cultural and religious mores, this study argues for the active role that altarpieces played – and the artists who created them – in articulating the ontologies of the altar and its liturgies. Through an examination of Ghirlandaio’s altarpieces, this study proposes a new definition of the fifteenth-century altarpiece as a dynamic object that mediated between the realm of art, as an aesthetic artifact, and the realm of the sacred, as an image that participated in the liturgies of the altar.

As the first study to explore Ghirlandaio’s altarpieces, this dissertation produces a new body of knowledge about the artist, his workshop, and his painting practices. More broadly, it reassesses the materiality, functions, and ontologies of altarpieces, leading not only to a greater understanding of Renaissance religious art, but also of sacred art more generally.