The Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici

the Magi and the Florentine politics

Christmas is coming! Most of us wait impatiently for the arrival of the winter festivities! Who doesn’t love Christmas, with its atmosphere filled with magic, soft lights and unique flavours of Christmas dishes? The celebrations of Christ’s nativity is one of the most important and most ancient Christian feasts. Did you know, however, that until the sixth century Christmas was celebrated in Bethlehem and Jerusalem on January 6, today’s Epiphany day and the feast of the Magi?

While in the Orient Christmas is celebrated on January 6 until our times, from mid fourth century the festive calendar in the West changed. The celebrations of Christ’s nativity was moved to the day of the Winter Solstice, while January 6 was dedicated to the celebration of the Epiphany and the Adoration of the Magi.

Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Child, Berlin
Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Child Jesus from Palazzo Medici, 1459-60, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

The Epiphany celebrates the moment when the mystery of Christ’s birth was announced to the entire world, and, in the medieval interpretations, the three magi from the Orient, whose arrival to Bethlehem was described in the Gospel of Matthew, were transformed into the three kings representing Asia, Europe and Africa. According to the medieval theologists, through the kings’ visit to the crib the entire humanity was participating in the mystery of the divine birth. Their wealthy gifts: incense, gold and myrrh, symbolized wisdom, power and wealth, and underlined Christ royal authority, but they also referred to the three basic functions ascribed to the members of the medieval societies. Oratores (incense) were these who prayed and studies; bellatores (gold) these, who ruled with force and guaranteed peace and justice, laboratores (myrrh) these, who with their work and sweat provided for the entire body of the Christian society.

With the passing of centuries, the legend of the Magi became an allegory of the medieval societies and it expressed contemporary ideas of power, authority and royalty. The iconography of the Magi became particularly popular in Florence, where the local families were fighting for the political domination of the city. The famous Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici in Florence is one of the best examples of a political use of art in fifteenth-century Florence.

Feast of the Magi in Florence

The figures of the biblical Magi went through the process of a gradual transformation into the symbolical figures of Kings and of the royal authority. The cult of the kings magi re-emerged in the eleventh century giving birth to various devotional practices, often characterized by a strong “theatricality”. In the devotional panorama of Western Europe, Florence became a truly exceptional case of a city particularly attached to the cult of the Magi.

During the fifteenth century the Florentine Festa dei Magi became a unique and magnificent spectacle, which engaged the citizens. The Florentines used to re-enact the arrival of the Magi on the streets of the city. This is how the feast looked like in 1429, as described by a chronicler Paolo di Matteo Pietrobuoni:

On Thursday, the sixth of January, 1 428 [1 429], the Festa de’ Magi was done. And it was an honourable and handsome celebration. And in the Piazza de’ Signori, by San Romolo, there was set up a platform on which stood a man got up as a king  impersonating King Herod, and many in his entourage with headwear(?) of considerable value, what with all the silver that was on it. The celebration began in the morning. And it lasted till six in the afternoon…. And in the morning the Twenty, dressed in monkish habits, went through the square with the persons representing our Lady and her Son. And this group went on to the platform in Piazza San Marco. And after lunch there were about seven hundred costumed men on horseback, among whom were the three Magi and their retinue, honourably dressed. […][i]. [Translation by Rab Hatfield]

From the descriptions of the feast we understand that the pageants of the Magi was directed towards Herod’s palace built in Piazza della Signoria. After the visit to the King, the Magi would move towards the crib, where they would adore Baby Jesus and the Virgin. The spectacle finished with the slaughter of the innocents, which was reenacted in Herod’s palace after the departure of the kings.

We can only imagine the wonder and marvel that these events aroused in the eyes of a fifteenth-century spectator, who saw the biblical events taking place on the streets of Florence!

Very soon, however, the feast of the Magi fell under the political control of the Medici family, and through the organization of this event the Medici would reaffirm their domination over the public and devotional life of the Florentine community. 

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Adoration of the Magi and the Florentine politics

The political implications of this particular cult resulted from the royal character of the mysterious figures of the Magi, attributed to them in the Middle Ages. In Florence the imaginary of the Kings Magi was used with political and symbolical implications already in 1423 when Gentile da Fabriano painted an Adoration of the Magi for Palla di Noferi Strozzi’s funerary chapel in Santa Trinita.

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Gallery
Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Palla, the wealthy merchant, member of the Florentine Arte del Cambio (guild of the money changers), received his knighthood in 1415. This title significantly increased his social position in Florence, and allowed Palla to publicly display his wealth, as he no longer had to obey to the sumptuary laws imposed by the Republican authorities.

At that time, Palla Strozzi was the wealthiest citizen in Florence, and thanks to his title he could freely walk on the streets of the city with his sword hilt and spur, wearing clothes richly decorated with fur, pearls and precious stones. The same richness and royal dignity is displayed on Gentile da Fabriano’s painting. The wealth and opulence of the Magi’s dresses attract the spectator immediately. In the past, Magi’s richly decorated and magnificent coats were decorated by the precious stones attached to the wood panel. Today they are lost, but you can still find black dots of glue, which testify the presence of these additional decorations on the panel. Palla Strozzi is portraited standing just behind the youngest King. He looks directly at us, proudly displaying his political ambitions, social posture and wealth.

Palla’s political ambitions were almost fulfilled. In September 1433 he managed, together with degli Albizzi family, to imprison and to condemn on exile his biggest political opponent, Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici. It seemed that Palla’s oligarchic faction won the battle with the Medici, but their success did not last long. The oligarchic government faced a crisis already during the following spring and in August 1434 Cosimo the Elder was recalled from exile. On his return, Cosimo became an absolute arbiter on the Florentine political stage and he assumed a full control of the Florentine government, sending also in exile Palla Strozzi and Rinaldo degli Albizzi.

The Magi Chapel in Palazzo Medici

Benozzo Gozzoli, Magi Chapel, Medici Palace, Florence
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of Magus Caspar, 1459, Magi Chapel, Medici Palace, Florence.

After the exile of their political opponents, the Medici family became unquestionable lords of Florence. However, Cosimo the Elder had to face a difficult task. How to legitimize political domination of one family in a system of a republican state? How to represent family authority and build political consent?

The iconography of the Magi became soon a powerful tool, used for display, reinforcement and reaffirmation of the Medicean government in Florence. The Medici not only took the control over the organization of the Magi’s feast on January 6, but in 1459 they commissioned the decoration of their private chapel in the Palazzo Medici with the representation of the pageants of the Three Magi. The frescoes on the walls of the chapel were painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, while Filippo Lippi painted the panel for the altarpiece, with a tender scene of the Holy family with Saint John the Baptist.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici, Florence
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of Magus Balthasar, 1459, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici, Florence.

Gozzoli’s frescoes amaze us with the richness of colours, hunting scenes and lusty landscapes in the backdrops. We can observe the processions of the three Magi passing through the countryside. Surprisingly, we can easily recognize the portraits of contemporary Florentines walking in these colourful processions together with the Kings. What is the meaning of this curious decoration?

Cosimo the Elder and the Council of Florence

The decoration of the Magi chapel in the Palazzo Medici not only celebrates the Medici’s political power in Florence but it also refers to Cosimo’s major success, achieved in 1439, when the ecumenical council discussing the possibility of a union between the Eastern and the Western churches arrived to the city. In 1439 Florence was at the centre of European politics.

The Eastern Empire was threatened by the expansion of the Ottomans. The project of religious union was aimed at the reinforcement of Constantinople and was supposed to lead to a military support sent from the West. The Byzantine delegation that arrived to Florence included the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II, the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos and his brother Demetrios Palaiologos. It seems that these three important personalities transformed into the three Magi on the walls of the Medici chapel.

Text of the union between the Western and the Eastern churches, 1439
Papal bull with the text of the union between the Eastern and the Western churches signed by the Byzantine Emperor.

The Council of Florence concluded with an apparent success as the union between the two churches has been signed on July 6, 1439. Unfortunately, the agreement was very weak. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the union remained only on paper and it has never been applied.

Pius II, a crusade and the Magi Chapel

Pinturicchio, Pius II in Ancona, Piccolomini Library, Siena.
Pinturicchio, Pius II in Ancona to Begin the Crusade, 1502-07, Piccolomini Library, Cathedral, Siena.

In 1459, pope Pius II promoted the idea of a crusade. Between 1459 and 1460 the Council of Mantua discussed a possibility of a new war against the Turks, aimed at the reconquest of Constantinople. These plans will also fail, but it seems that Gozzoli’s decoration in the Medici Palace refers to these political ambitions of Pius II and Cosimo the Elder. The decoration celebrates the success of the council of Florence and supports the pope’s ambitions of a crusade.

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Who are the Magi in the Magi Chapel?

Gozzoli’s decoration is filled with political references. On the left wall we can admire the pageant of the elderly Magus, Melchior, who probably represents the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II. His procession is leaving and in front of him walk the members of the Florentine oligarchy, Cosimo the Elder’s opponents, such as Niccolò da Uzzano, who symbolically come off the stage.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici, Florence.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of Magus Melchior, 1459, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici, Florence.

The middle aged Magus, Balthasar, most probably portraits the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos. His monumental figure occupies the central wall. The Emperor wears magnificent green dress, richly decorated with the golden patterns and the fur.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Byzantine Emperor as Magus
Benozzo Gozzoli, Byzantine Emperor John VIII as Magus Balthasar, 1459, Magi Chapel, Medici Palace, Florence.

The left wall is entirely dedicated to the procession of the youngest King,  Caspar. His identity is the most discussed between the scholars. Silvia Ronchey sees in him the portrait of Demetrios Palaiologos, John VIII’s brother. Franco Cardini identifies the figure as an idealized portrait of Laurence the Magnificent. In any case, the youngest Magus represents the future. Among his followers we easily recognize the members of the Medici family: Cosimo the Elder, his son Piero and his grandsons Laurence and Giuliano.

Benozzo Gozzoli, portraits of the Medici, Medici Chapel, Florence.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Portraits [from left to right] of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Cosimo the Elder and Piero de’ Medici, 1459, Magi Chapel, Medici Palace, Florence.

 In the colourful crowd following the Magus we recognize the Lord of Rimini, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and the young Galeazzo Maria Sforza, son of the Lord of Milan, who in 1459 served as ambassador in Florence. The youngest Magus is followed by the pope Pius II himself surrounded by the Greek philosophers and theologists, whose ideas promoted the union achieved in 1439: Georgius Gemistus Plethon, John Argyropoulos and the Byzantine Greek Metropolitan of Kiev Isidore of Thessalonica. Caspar is also followed by the Florentine humanists, Marsilio Ficino, Luigi Pulci, Leonardo Bruni and Cristoforo Landino.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Portrait of Plethon, Magi Chapel, Florence.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Portrait of Georgius Gemistus Plethon, 1459, Magi Chapel, Medici Palace, Florence.

The Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici is a true political manifesto! With the use of images and in reference to the legend of the three wise Magi from the Orient, on the walls of the chapel the Medici represented  their political aspirations. Gozzoli’s frescoes feature the Medici as leaders of Italian politics, supporters of the pope and promoters of the idea of a union between the West and the East. This unique decoration proves once more art is not a pure creative expression but it often becomes a tool of political battle and competition.

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[i] 6 January 1428/29. Description of the Festa de’ Magi: Paolo di Matteo Pietrobuoni, Priorista, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Conventi Soppressi, C, 4, 895, fol. 123v. Quote from Rab Hatfield, The Compagnia de’ Magi, “Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes”, Vol. 33 (1970), p. 112.