Prato cathedral, Choir Fresco Cycle

(1452-1466)
   Commissioned by the Datini family from Fra Filippo Lippi, who settled in Prato, near Florence, these frescoes depict scenes from the life of Sts. Stephen, the cathedral's dedicatee, and John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence under whose rule Prato submitted, with the four Evangelists on the vault. Of the scenes depicting St. Stephen, the most complex from a compositional standpoint is his funeral. Here the saint's corpse is laid out on a bier surrounded by mourning figures with members of the clergy and the nobility of Prato at either side, some of which may portray actual individuals. The scene takes place in a complex church setting that features a classical vocabulary not unlike that introduced in architecture by Filippo Brunelleschi and developed further by Leon Battista Alberti. Rendered through the use of one-point linear perspective, the vanishing point in this work is on the altar upon which sits a simple cross that casts a shadow on the aedicula (small shrine) behind it. With this, Lippi paralleled the life of St. Stephen with that of Christ, and particularly his martyrdom for the sake of the faith. Other scenes on the saint's life include his birth, his disputation with the elder Jews, and his martyrdom.
   Scenes from the life of the Baptist are correlated thematically and compositionally to those of St. Stephen and include his birth and naming, his taking leave of his parents to live in the wilderness, and his preaching in the desert. Most noteworthy is the Feast of Herod, which shows Salome dancing, receiving the head of the Baptist as reward, and presenting the head to her mother, Herodias. In this scene, the vanishing point is on the Datini's coat of arms to call attention to the fact that they financed the commission. These frescoes must have presented a major challenge for the aging Lippi as their considerable distance from the ground demanded substantial figures and details. The officials of the cathedral in fact complained to the Medici that the artist was slow in completing the commission. The billowing draperies in these frescoes that vary from thick to diaphanous, the diverse poses of the figures, the impeccably rendered perspective of the interior spaces, and the elegant gestures that punctuate the dramatic moments in each episode are all part of Lippi's usual visual language.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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