Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Augustine (?), the Young St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist

Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with saints

Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio

c. 1519
oil on wood
120 x 120 cm
source of the artwork

Galatea, Santa Sofia, Ospedale della Misericordia

short description

This painting was commissioned from Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio in 1519 and two years later it entered the Ospedale della Misericordia di Santa Sofia in Galatea, in the Tuscan part of Romagna. At the time the Ospedale depended on Santa Maria Nuova, Florence’s leading hospital then under the direction of Bishop Leonardo Buonafè (?–1545) who, in addition to being a powerful hospital supervisor, was also a self-confessed art lover. His determination to perpetuate the grand Florentine tradition can clearly be seen in the various works of art which he commissioned for those institutions that depended on Santa Maria Nuova.

inventary n°

Leonardo Buonafè’s strategic determination to display unity and consistency in his artistic choices is particularly visible in his loyalty to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and his workshop which produced numerous paintings for him over thirty-five years, nine of which have survived.

The sequence began in 1509 with a Madonna and Child with St. Peter, St. Lucy, St. Apollonia and St. Jerome for the high altar of San Pietro a Marcignana (now in the Museo Diocesano in San Miniato al Tedesco). This was followed in 1512–14 by a prestigious commission for San Pier Scheraggio, a church in Florence adjacent to Palazzo Vecchio (the painting was moved to San Martino alla Scala in Florence in the early 19th century).

Between 1512 and 1518 Ridolfo’s workshop produced no fewer than three altarpieces for San Pietro a Pitiana, two of which – an Annunciation and a Madonna and Child with St. John Gualberto and St. Augustine – are still in situ, while the third, a Madonna and Child with St. Michael, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Mary Magdalen formerly on the high altar of the church then in Henry Bathurst III’s collection, is now in Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. Documents published by David Franklin (1993, docs. XII-XVII) have revealed that the Ospedale della Misericordia di Santa Sofia in Galatea also enjoyed Leonardo Buonafè’s patronage. Lisa Venturini (1994–5) was the first to suggest associating the evidence discovered in the archives with the painting in the Pinacoteca di Faenza, which Federico Zeri had already proposed to attribute to Ridolfo’s workshop, in particular to Toto della Nunziata (verbal communication, Pinacoteca archive) in 1989.

The altarpieces that Buonafè commissioned next, between 1531 and 1544, were a Madonna and Child with St. Peter and St. Paul for the church of San Pietro a Massa dei Sabbioni, and two others for buildings in Florence, namely a Meeting at the Golden Gate for the Oratorio della Santissima Concezione dei Preti (now in the Galli Tassi collection) and a Madonna and Child in Glory with St. James, St. Francis, St. Catherine and St. Lawrence for the church of Santi Jacopo e Lorenzo (now in the Museo del Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto).

All these pictures still contain certain archaic elements such as the gilding on the panels for San Pietro a Marcignana and San Pier Scheraggio, which we know from the archives also had predellas. Yet this subscription to the Quattrocento tradition, which is especially obvious in the artist’s adoption of the Sacred Conversation as his compositional model – in particular the model developed by Domenico Ghirlandaio in his altarpieces for San Giusto and San Marco (Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi) – is tempered by his interest in Raphael’s coeval work, echoing in particular the Madonna of the Baldacchino (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina), the only altarpiece that Raphael painted while in Florence and which was to have a lasting influence on his friend Ridolfo’s work. Ridolfo’s revival of the models painted by his father Domenico in the previous century, brought up to date and filtered through his study of Raphael, can be seen in his Virgin in Glory for San Martino alla Scala, which harks back to his father’s large altarpiece for Santa Maria Novella (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) yet renewed in the light of Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno (Pinacoteca Vaticana).

This deliberately traditional taste continued well into the 1520s, the period when the Pinacoteca di Faenza’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine was painted. A typical product of Ridolfo’s workshop at this time, it is very close in style to the Pietà in the church of Sant’Agostino in Colle Val d’Elsa (1518–21). Ridolfo eschewed a narrative vein in these pictures in favour of a more static presentation focusing on the images’ devotional charge. He compels the observer to contemplate the wondrous display of the divine, primarily by including the figures of saints who, in iconographic tradition, would otherwise have no cause to be witnessing the central episode in St. Catherine’s life or in Christ’s descent from the cross. The contract for the Colle Val d’Elsa Pietà actually specified that Ridolfo should honour the family tradition by emulating the Visitation that his father Domenico had painted for the church of Cestello in Florence (now in the Louvre in Paris) ; so in the fullness of his maturity Ridolfo still found himself immersed in a climate celebrating and perpetuating the glory of the Ghirlandaio family. All of this made for a perfect execution of the work but above all, it made for psychological abstraction because the characters he portrays do not exchange so much as a glance with each other, while the figures communicating with the faithful (St. John the Baptist in Colle Val d’Elsa and St. John the Evangelist in Faenza) urge them sternly to turn to study and prayer. In its tight, closed composition from which all drama ls barred, the scene in the Faenza painting becomes silent meditation, a distant heir to the compositions of Perugino and his school.

The Faenza altarpiece is, therefore, a painting that perfectly reflects the «Buonafè taste» forged on other typical examples of Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio’s work, which helps us to understand why Rosso Fiorentino’s shocking Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and St. Romuald (Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina), initially commissioned for the church of Santo Stefano in Florence, triggered the good Bishop’s wrath. He ended up rejecting a work which proved to be one of the liveliest responses to the Florentine classicism best represented in those years by Ridolfo’s Raphaelesque style. It is thus hardly surprising to discover that Ridolfo was the alternative candidate for painting the (now lost) altarpiece afresh. All the work produced for Buonafè by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio’s workshop both mirrored and embodied the patron’s subtle communication strategy based on containing and standardising art in the churches dependent on Santa Maria Nuova, and his dogged determination to enforce a uniform style and decoration.

F.Argnani, La Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza, Faenza 1881, p. 19

S.Casadei, Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, p. 8

D.Franklin, “Towards a new chronology for Ridolfo Ghirlandaio and Michele Tosini”, The Burlington Magazine, 140, 1998, pp. 445-455, p. 445 n. 1

M.Gianeselli, Dans le sillage de Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). Peintres et commanditaires à Florence (1480-1530), Ph. D. Dissertation, Amiens, université Picardie-Jules Verne, 2012, p. 438, 529

VENTURINI 1994-1995
L.Venturini, “Il Maestro del 1506 : la tarda attività di Bastiano Mainardi”, Studi di storia dell’arte, 5-6, 1994-1995, pp. 123-183 (p. 142 note 139)

L. Venturini, I Ghirlandaio e l’Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, in Il patrimonio artistico dell’Ospedale Santa Maria Nuova di Firenze, a cura di Cristina De Benedictis, Firenze, 2002, pp. 142-151

The images are the property of the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza. For the use of the images, please write to

written by
Matteo Gianeselli