THE DEPICTION OF ANGEL MUSICIANS IN MARIAN SACRED PAINTING IN FLORENCE, 1300-1500
Sacred art from the mid 13th century exhibited a surge in the number of depictions of musicians, particularly angel musicians, often found in representations of Marian subjects, such as the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin.
This is likely to have been influenced by the growing popularity of the cult of the Virgin. Marian imagery developed significantly in the trecento (1, 2), illustrating Mary’s dual role as the very human, nurturing and loving mother of the Madonna Humilità or Madonna Lactans but also, being the Mother of God, as Queen of Heaven illustrated in the Virgin and Child Enthroned, Maestà or Coronation of the Virgin imagery.
The developing imagery of Mary owed much to literary sources, such as the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine written in 1260 and Meditations on the Life of Christ by pseudo-Bonaventura (1300–1330). Manuscripts were becoming more widely available at this time and these detailed, apocryphal descriptions of heaven, its hierarchies, and events happening there provided good sources for artists attempting to realise commissions.
The influx of musical angels into Marian altarpieces between 1300 and 1500, during this stage of development of the cult of Mary may have been prompted by a number of factors:
mystery plays, which were becoming increasingly secularized and popular, commonly used musical instruments to accompany singing and to provide incidental music in the portrayal of events in the Life of Mary
literary texts about the life of Mary that included descriptions of celestial music and musicians were becoming more widely available
the development of new imagery for Mary led to prototypes for Marian subjects that included angel musicians, which then became popular and were copied
confraternities devoted to celebrating the cult of Mary through music were a key component of Florentine religious devotion at the time and increasingly employed instrumentalists
It is highly likely that no single factor but a combination of these factors led to expectations that were responsible for the exponential rise in the number of angel orchestras depicted in Marian altarpieces.
Representations of angel musicians in Marian altarpieces are not realistic portrayals of contemporary liturgical music (3). The only instrument then heard in church was the organ; trumpets were occasionally used in Mass at the consecration and elevation of the host (e.g. at Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence), but more generally in ecclesiastical processions (4). Christian concepts of music were based on pure liturgical song as an echo of angelic song with a rigorous exclusion of instrumentalists in church. Yet artists from the 13th century onwards increasingly portrayed angel instrumentalists around the heavenly throne.
Research carried out by musicologists suggests that this portrayal of angel musicians owes more to the orchestral groupings of sacra rappresentazione or mystery plays (5). These plays developed from the liturgy by the practice of troping or adding dialogue to sections of the text that lent themselves well to dramatization. When, during the 13th century, mystery plays began to be performed in the piazzas rather than in the churches, secular organizations, such as confraternities, sponsored and took part in performances. There was a corresponding secularization of the music, and the vernacular songs or instrumental music that were interspersed with the drama were accompanied or played by minstrels or jongleurs on instruments, such as the rebec or vielle.
Angel musicians playing these secular instruments near the throne of Heaven were often depicted in painted altarpieces, such as the Coronation of the Virgin, of this period. But these instruments were never heard in church. Contemporary chronicles state that the only instrument played during the liturgy was the organ; in fact, some accounts describe a ban on all instruments except the organ. While Marian altarpieces were never intended to represent liturgical services, it is intriguing that angel orchestras became a standard motif, particularly for subjects such as the Coronation of the Virgin and the Assumption. Winternitz suggests that the imagery of the subjects lent themselves well to the inclusion of angel orchestras. For example, the Assumption could be interpreted as a triumphal procession accompanied by trumpets in a loud windband.
Angel musicians are seen in non-Marian altarpieces of this period, for example, Andrea di Cione’s Christ in Glory with Saints altarpiece in the Strozzi chapel of Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1354–7). However, the link between Marian imagery and angel musicians is very strong, particularly in Florence where the cult of Mary and devotion through song were prevalent. The earliest laudesi company was founded in Siena by the Dominicans at Campo Regio in 1267, but it was in Florence, one of the largest cities in Europe at the time, that laudesi companies became rich and numerous. According to Weissman, there was “widespread and socially heterogenous participation of lay townsmen in these pious practices…; lay confraternities became part of the framework of civic life.
Sources and methods
In order to investigate the influences that may have instigated or encouraged the use of angel musicians in Marian altarpieces, I have considered a number of sources. Primary sources include contemporary accounts of mystery plays to assess if musical instruments were used and if so which ones, especially Nerida Newbigin’s translation of the account of Bishop Abraham Suzdal; translations of the Golden Legend; and the Bible. These sources provide a direct link to the popular religious texts that artists producing Marian altarpieces over this time period were exposed to. The extent of the liturgical control over commissions is not easy to assess without contracts or letters, although presumably the patrons did input into the process of production.
I also carried out a survey of altarpieces depicting the Coronation of the Virgin painted between 1300 and 1500, particularly those by well-known Florentine and Venetian artists, in order to assess whether instrumentalists were included, and which instruments, as a way of assessing stylistic trends and relationships.
Secondary sources include records and accounts of the laudesi companies of Florence published in Music and Merchants by Blake Wilson, describing laudesi practices, particularly in relation to the employment of instrumentalists. There is also a wealth of literature about the history, usage and development of instruments in the early Renaissance. I have also used secondary sources relating to the Rucellai Madonna and the Orsanmichele tabernacle in order to assess whether the fact that the patrons were laudesi companies might have impacted on how these commissions were carried out.
Research by musicologists has shown that many of the combinations of instruments shown in Marian altarpieces owe more to the orchestral groupings of sacra rappresentazione or mystery plays than to the musical ensembles found in church. Looking at representations of musicians in art for evidence of contemporary usage of instruments is limited for a number of reasons outlined by Winternitz, including limitations of the medium; contemporary or individual style; lack of mechanical or musical understanding; and requirements of the composition. However, artists did presumably draw on their knowledge of earthly musicians to produce heavenly ones.
Some traditional ensembles in Marian sacred painting seem to have been transferred directly from the mystery plays. For example, in a French play (1474), the figures of the Trinity were shown on a raised throne surrounded by rows of angels ‘playing’ with real instrumentalists behind the scenery. Stage directions indicate that only soft plucked instruments, such as harps, lutes and rebecs were played around the setting of inner heaven. This composition is characteristic of many of the Marian altarpieces produced during this period.
Originally, mystery plays had been produced in church and written by churchmen, but gradually, the liturgical drama became more complex and outgrew the church. Mystery plays were staged outside, sometimes under the church façade, on the ground, on raised platforms, or on wagons. The laity, guilds and confraternities, became involved as participants and sponsors. Well-known examples are the Ascension play organised by the Compagnia di Santa Maria delle Laudi e di Sant’Agnese in Santa Maria del Carmine; the Annunciation play at San Felice in Piazza, possibly organised by a Compagnia della Nunziata linked to San Silvestro; and the Pentecost play organised by the Compagnia dello Spirito Santo delle Laude at Santo Spirito.
There is a contemporary record of two sacre rappresentazione performed in Florence in 1439 written by Abraham of Suzdal, a bishop attending the Patriarch of Constantinople at the Council of Florence in that year. In it, he described the Annunciation play performed on March 25th in San Felice in Piazza. According to Newbigin’s translation, there was an elevated platform with a throne and a man representing God the Father. “Little boys in white robes surrounded him representing heavenly virtues. Some of them were singing, another played the cymbals, others played the lute and pipes.” In the same year, Bishop Suzdal described the Ascension festa at Santa Maria del Carmine on May 14. Again, a man representing God the Father is seen on an elevated platform. “Around him is a throng of little children who represent angels with pipes and lutes and lots of tiny bells.” In these contemporary reports of two Florentine sacre rappresentazions, therefore, angel musicians played around the throne of heaven. Other contemporary reports of sacre rappresentazione, festivals or processions also describe singers representing angels singing and playing, or being accompanied by, a variety of musical instruments.
The representation of heaven in the mystery plays could have been in response to a precedent provided by the painting community. Or it could have been the tradition in the production of mystery plays. It could also have been a response to popular, contemporary expectations. Newbigin implies that there were expectations, “a set of criteria” or recognisable attributes that figures in the mystery play must conform to in order for the audience to realise who they were. For example, God the Father sits on a throne dressed in magnificent robes with a crown; children resemble angels in their head-dress and clothes. Newbigin highlights the interplay between the two media: “even though the practice of the plays may influence the gestures and the placement of figures in paintings, it is the paintings that fix and record those gestures and placements and set standards…to which the plays must in turn conform.”
If these plays set the standard for how this scene should be represented in paintings, which then in turn shaped expectations of how the plays should be staged, the inclusion of angel musicians must have been a key factor in establishing the idea of angel musicians around the throne of Heaven in the minds of the viewers.
Direct links between staged mystery plays and painted depictions of the scene have been proposed. Newbigin describes the unusual Annunciation of Filippo Lippi in the Palasso Doria, Rome (between 1439 and 1458) where the Annunciation is from the right as noted in Suzdal’s account of the San Felice festa. Jacobus suggests that the depiction of the Annunciation in the Arena chapel painted by Giotto (c. 1305) relates to a mystery play traditionally held on the site, later linked to a church service as part of the devotions for the feast day.
Jacobus highlights the different style of the Annunciation compared with the other frescoes in the Arena chapel, which reflect the staging style of mystery plays from this period. For example, the Virgin is in a dark, bare interior with only a prie-dieu, very like the account of the performance of the Annunciation Mass at Padua Cathedral and significantly unlike the comfortable chamber of the Apparition to St Anne. Curtains part to reveal the Virgin and the Archangel, a device used frequently in mystery plays. Both characters appear extremely static and expressionless. This contrasts markedly to the depiction of emotion apparent in the other frescoes that was Giotto’s main achievement in art.
Jacobus suggests that Giotto’s intention was to recreate tableaux vivant with minimal movement and emotion, mimicking stage directions and performance practice described in manuscripts of contemporary mystery plays. Other features, such as costume, lead Jacobus to conclude that “performance practices conditioned audience expectations as to certain characters’ appearances in art, and vice versa.”
In summary, mystery plays often showed representations of musical angels around the throne, as reported by contemporary accounts, which are directly analogous to the angel concerts that became so popular in Marian altarpieces. It is perhaps significant that laudesi companies which associated Marian devotion with music were intimately involved in mystery plays. There are also several examples of depictions of Marian scenes or events whose imagery and composition can be directly linked to accounts of plays. It seems extremely likely therefore that the influence of mystery plays on the influx of angel musicians into Marian painting was significant.
One of the key literary sources for religious subjects during the early part of the Renaissance was the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, written around 1260. Compiled from a number of apocryphal sources, it was intended as an information source for preaching. However, it became extremely popular for its stories and was the most printed book in Europe between 1470 and 1530.
The Legenda Aurea describes the scene of the Assumption as accompanied with "sweet song and melody". Music was therefore associated with the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin in this most influential work, which could have been a major influence on the decision to include angel instrumentalists in artistic depictions.
Interestingly, the Assumption lauda that describes the canto celestiale, the celebrations as the Virgin was assumed and led to her throne in heaven, is similar to the Legenda Aurea account. When laudesi were praising the Virgin, they were describing, and perhaps contributing to, the triumph of Mary accompanied by music and song.
The other key apocryphal religious narrative was The Meditations on the Life of Christ; written c.1300–1330 and printed for the first time in the 15th century. Thought to be written by an Italian Franciscan friar, Johannes de Caulibus de San Gimigniano, it appears under the name of pseudo-Bonaventura. This text, written for a nun of the Poor Clares, had a particular emphasis on the Virgin and empathising how she felt as she witnessed events, and on the relationship between Christ and his mother. The Meditations was a potent influence in the “humanizing of the pictorial story of the Passion” between the 13th and 15th centuries.
The Meditations was influential both as a devotional text but also as an illustrated manuscript. Motifs, such as the presence of Mary at the birth of St John the Baptist or the oldest King kissing the foot of Christ in the Adoration of the Magi were introduced or reinforced by illustrations in this work. Heinmann suggests a further influence of religious theatre on the illustrators, which further demonstrates how interrelated these spheres are.
More obvious literary influences are Biblical texts such as the psalms and Revelations. Psalm 150 was almost literally represented in depictions of angel concerts.
“Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel (an archaic form of tambourine) and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.”
The list in Psalm 150 is a good match for the instruments routinely shown played by angel musicians (Paolo Veneziano’s Coronation for Santa Chiara, Venice (1350s) or Fra Angelico’s Coronation for San Domenico, Fiesole (1430–2)). The combination of trumpet with psaltery or harp is, in particular, a very common one in Marian altarpieces, but it is highly unlikely to have happened in reality as the trumpet belongs to the processional, outdoor haut grouping of instruments whereas the stringed instruments belong to the bas softer plucked instrumental group.
The choice of instruments is fairly consistent; organ and lute were the most popular instruments. The portative organ is included as one of the instruments in seventeen of the twenty-seven altarpieces that include angel musicians. The lute-playing angel appears in versions of the Coronation of the Virgin from 1375 onwards and became a key motif in later depictions of the Madonna Enthroned. In particular, the lute was very popular in the Veneto Coronations, and is included in most of them (seven out of nine), whereas the Florentine versions had a much lower incidence (seven out of eighteen). Other stringed instruments, such as the harp, vielle and cithara, were also very popular.
Trumpets were a popular choice of instrument for Coronation of the Virgin, both due to its inclusion in Psalm 150 and due to the joyful and ceremonial component of the subject. Trumpets had appeared much earlier in depictions of angels sounding the Last Trump. Tambourine was also a key instrument, more so in the Venetian altarpieces than the Florentine ones (five out of nine as opposed to six out of eighteen). Only cymbals of the list in Psalm 150 are relatively infrequent.
The use of other more vernacular instruments in angel orchestras, such as bagpipes or pipe and tabor, are not as easily traceable from literary sources. Vernacular instruments are mentioned in the Book of Daniel (3: 5, 7, 10, 15), where the instruments of Nebuchadnezzar are the “tubæ, et fistulæ, et citharæ, sambucæ, et psalterii, et symphoniæ, et universi generis musicorum”, translated in the King James version as the cornet, flute, sackbut and dulcimer, i.e. contemporary non-liturgical instruments. Instruments, such as the bagpipe were associated with jongleurs and other street musicians. These have been portrayed in Coronation scenes by, for example, Jacopo di Cione (1370), Filippo Lippi (1441–5) and Zanobi Machiavelli (1474). They probably arrived in response to the secularization of the liturgy and the influx of popular music and musicians under the influence of mystery plays.
Literary sources may have been a source of imagery for Marian altarpieces, both in the words they used and in the illustrations they included. Illuminations from liturgical music manuscripts, such as choirbooks and laudarios produced between 1300 and 1450, include angel instrumentalists. For example, the laudario of the Compagnia di S. Agnese of S. Maria del Carmine, Florence, depicts St Agnes accompanied by two angels playing a psaltery and a lute. This laudario, dating from the first half of the 14th century includes illuminations by Pacino di Bonaguica and the Master of the Dominican Effigies. An initial from the gradual for S. Maria degli Angeli, Florence, shows the Virgin and Christ in glory attended by saints and angels offering flowers or playing music. This manuscript, painted by Dan Silvestro dei Gherarducci (1371), includes lute, portative organ, and vielle. Some painters of Marian altarpieces began as illuminators; for example, Lorenzo Monaco may have trained or worked with Gherarducci at S. Maria degli Angeli. A missal for Santa Maria dei Servi, Venice, illuminated c.1420, has a Coronation scene with angels playing harp, lute and portative organ.
In summary, literary sources were clearly a key source of material that may have helped instigate the popularity of music associated with Heaven, and therefore angel musicians in depictions of subjects such as the Coronation of the Virgin. Artists may also have used texts to inform the choice of instruments that they included in angel orchestras.
Precedents and prototypes
One representation of, for example, the Coronation of the Virgin, could have set the precedent for including angel musicians in later versions. Although originating in Siena, the Coronation of the Virgin was a very popular subject in Florence. Florentine painters of this subject (for example the Baroncelli altarpiece, the San Pier Maggiore altarpiece) instigated styles such as the massed ranks of saints. Similarly, their depiction of musicians in this subject may have been a prototype that was copied.
Stylistic influences in the Coronation of the Virgin altarpieces can be grouped. For example, there is a direct stylistic relationship between the Coronation of the Virgin as depicted in the Baroncelli altarpiece from Giotto’s workshop and those produced by Bernardo Daddi (1340), and Agnolo Gaddi (c.1370; Figures 1 and 2a/2b). This is unsurprising as Daddi was a close contemporary of Taddeo Gaddi and Agnolo Gaddi was “heir to the Giottesque tradition” through his father. These three versions all show a double-handed crowning of the Virgin who looks down and bends her head submissively, crossing her hands. Adoring angels are shown at the side of the throne and angels kneeling before the throne, either adore or play a variety of instruments.
Bernardo Daddi’s Coronation also contained four music-making angels, which are now in Christ Church, Oxford (Figure 2a), as did Agnolo Gaddi’s version in the Samuel Kress collection, which closely follows the style of the two central figures and includes angel musicians (Figure 2b). However, Gaddi’s 1380 version for San Giovanni de'Fieri, Pisa, now in the National Gallery, London, has no musician angels.
Lorenzo Monaco also picks up this Florentine style as one of the last Gothic painters before the influx of the International Gothic style. Both his versions for the Santa Maria degli Angeli (c.1414) and for San Benedetto fuori della Porta a Pinti, Florence (1414), include adoring angels with an organ-playing angel at the foot of the throne. Monaco trained with Agnolo Gaddi, so again, similarities are to be expected.
Interestingly, Guido da Siena’s much earlier version of the Coronation of the Virgin (c.1270–80) depicts Christ crowning the Virgin with one hand. She faces front but inclines her head, hands facing outwards in front of her. Coor-Achenbach maintains that this is the earliest Italian representation of the subject. This is also like early examples in sculpture, such as the portal for Strasbourg Cathedral (1250) and Duccio’s design for the stained glass window of the Siena Duomo. However, Duccio’s panel of 1308–11 (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) shows Christ using both hands to crown his mother (Figure 3). It has been suggested that this is the lost Coronation of the Maestà.
The di Cione brothers also exhibited close similarities to the Baroncelli altarpiece in the pose of the Virgin and Christ and in the use of musical and adoring angels in their composition for their altarpieces. Andrea di Cione obviously admired the work of Giotto in the Arena chapel and Taddeo Gaddi in the Baroncelli chapel as iconographic links to these works can be traced in the Orsanmichele tabernacle. Perhaps it was also in the Baroncelli chapel that he picked up the idea of music-making angels for the tabernacle and for the Strozzi altarpiece, both highly influential works.
Jacopo di Cione’s altarpiece for San Pier Maggiore, Florence, (1370), also clearly belongs to the Baroncelli/Daddi/Gaddi style, both in terms of poses of the two figures and as demonstrated by the angel musicians playing at the foot of the throne (Figure 4a). However his 1373 Coronation, now in the Accademia in Florence, exhibits the beginnings of the transcendental style described by Meiss, as does Bartolo di Fredi, in his Coronation of 1388. The style and composition is similar to Baroncelli and includes angels, although the throne has been replaced by drapery or cherubim (Figure 4b). In summary, in the majority of cases, where the Baroncelli altarpiece poses were seen, angel musicians were also included.
There was a development in the poses of the central figures in the early quattrocento in Tuscany, as exemplified by Fra Angelico’s depictions of the Virgin kneeling in front of Christ to be crowned (Figure 5a and b), but angel musicians continued to be included. This pose is echoed in Lippi (1441), Ghirlandaio (1486) and Botticelli (1490), all of which also include angel musicians. It was about this time that angel musicians began to be shown at the side of the throne rather than at the foot, which was then more commonly occupied by saints. This development may have been part of a trend towards hierarchical differentiations emphasizing the mystical and the divine.
There is a clear distinction between Trecento Venetian and Tuscan compositions for the Coronation of the Virgin. In the Venetian version, a majestic Christ crowns the Virgin with one hand and often faces and looks forward. In these versions, the Virgin’s eyeline is not necessarily downcast but is outward looking. In the Tuscan take, the figure of Christ is more equal to that of the Virgin and he turns towards her, using two hands to crown her while she looks downwards, submissively.
Accordingly, Paolo Veneziano’s Coronation altarpieces of 1324 (attributed) and of the late 1350s resemble the Torriti mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (c. 1294), in the poses and eyelines of the Virgin and Christ (Figure 6 and 6b). However, Veneziano’s later Coronation begins to show a possible Tuscan influence in the positioning of the Virgin’s hands.
The one-handed crowning is also a feature of Guariento’s Coronation altarpieces (1344 and c.1351), although the folded hands and submissive posture of the Virgin is also present. The fresco for the Great Council Hall of the Doge’s palace, Venice (1365), however is slightly closer to the Torriti mosaic in the positioning of the Virgin’s hands.
Is the difference in poses between the Venetian and the Tuscan prototypes reflected in the inclusion of musicians? That is, does the Venetian prototype include angel musicians?
Interestingly, angel musicians appear in a very similar proportion of Venetian Coronation of the Virgin altarpieces to Tuscan ones in a survey.
In this sample, twenty-seven of the forty altarpieces included musician angels. In Florence or Tuscany, eighteen out of the twenty-six Tuscan altarpieces included angel musicians (i.e. nine out of thirteen). In the Veneto, nine of the fourteen altarpieces included angel musicians.
The positioning of the musicians is more individualized in the Venetian than in the Tuscan prototype. Veneziano places the angel musicians behind the throne whereas Jacobello del Fiore uses Guariento’s model for the Doge’s palace using a throne with niches for angel musicians. Menabuoi anticipates the separation of angels and saints and the transcendental style with the absence of the throne that is seen later in Florence.
In summary therefore, the Coronation of the Virgin was more popular in Florence than in the Veneto, particularly in the second half of the 14th century. Its popularity peaked between 1300 and 1500 in Italy and subsequently it became rarer. Coronation pictures from the Tuscan school include the largest collection of musical angels in sacred painting, apart from earlier Last Judgement paintings. Interestingly Tuscan/Florentine Coronations are more uniform than Venetian versions: the poses of the main figures and the inclusion of angel musicians are two fairly well-repeated characteristics. The Tuscan prototype’s influence on local artists appears to be stronger than the Venetian version on its local artists.
It seems likely that the tradition of angel musicians in the Coronation of the Virgin was established by the Baroncelli inheritors and continued by Angelico and later painters in the Tuscan tradition, despite innovations to the imagery of the Coronation of the Virgin. Developments are less easy to trace in Venetian Coronations as they are much more heterogeneous and there are fewer of them to exhibit clear trends. However, angel musicians were a part of the imagery, probably in response to the same literary influences.
The obvious place to look for a link between the cult of Mary and angel musicians would be the laudesi confraternities or lauda companies (compagnia delle laude). At this time, confraternities were the cornerstone of Marian devotion in Florence celebrated through music and prayer. Laudesi confraternities became an extremely important component of Florentine community life from the mid to late 1200s through to the end of the 15th century. The desire for more participation in religious and public life coupled to encouragement of empathy for Christ, his mother and the saints as real human beings, had led to a flourishing cult of Mary led by lay religious confraternities.
The terms laudesi and lauda derive from Lauds or praise, a divine office that ended with Psalms 148, 149 and 150. The lauda developed from a basic Latin litany into vernacular poems of praise that formed part of an evening service of song and prayers to the Virgin. Laude were not part of the liturgy and were generally sung daily in the evening, at the once-monthly processional services and on feast days. The lauda became the most prominent vernacular homophonic artform in the Renaissance, linking liturgical music with street songs.
It is hard to recreate the extent to which the laudesi companies formed part of the daily life of the average Florentine. Their influence was inherent. Ferial or daily services were held in their patronal church but their festal services were held at major centres of devotion accompanied by ceremonial processions. They were also part of the public life of the city, distributing alms and supporting hospitals.
As well as being a key part of religious devotion in Florence, laudesi companies were patrons of religious painting. Meiss declared of laudesi activities that “no phenomenon of town life was more expressive of its democratic and lay tendencies and none impinged more directly upon the art of painting.”
One of the most famous examples of laudesi commissions is the Rucellai Madonna by Duccio (1285) painted for the Societas di Sancte Maria Virginis of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. While the Rucellai Madonna panel does not include angel musicians, Wilson has suggested that the laudesi members were the implied musicians. This extension allowed the confraternity to recreate and participate in the sacred event with their musical devotions. The actual event here is the Assumption as demonstrated by the flexing of the angels’ wrists and arms in the act of lifting up the throne. The joyful music and song of the laudesi therefore brings into being the text of the Legenda Aurea.
Furthermore, the grouping of the angel musicians in front of the throne in later Coronation of the Virgin altarpieces, such as the Baroncelli (c.1332–8), and the Bernardo Daddi and Jacopo di Cione versions (1340 and 1370–1, respectively), could recall the grouping of laudesi musicians in front of a devotional altarpiece. The focus of the devotions was the image of the Virgin on the altar and, while it is difficult to find descriptions of actual practices for the lauda services, a statute for the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese from 1298 required that the laudesi officers knelt throughout the lauda singing. Instrumentalists were increasingly employed for laude services throughout this time period so the clustering of singers and musicians in front of the enthroned image of the Virgin was becoming more and more widespread.
In the Orsanmichele tabernacle by Andrea di Cione (1359; Figure 7), another famous laudesi commission, the link between the activities of the laudesi company and the subject matter is apparent. For example, the angels pulling back curtains recall the statutes of 1294 that detail instructions about veiling and unveiling the image. Could the use of angel musicians in the tabernacle therefore reflect laudesi activities?
The company was unusual in that it regularly used instrumentalists to accompany the lauda — here, in a lay arena, the Church’s opposition to instrumental participation in religious music could have little sway. The musicians may have played within the tabernacle itself, heightening the sense of theatricality as the music appeared to issue from the angel musicians, a neat parody of the mystery play.
The uncommon prominence of instrumentalists in the Marian devotions of Orsanmichele may have prompted di Cione to place angel instrumentalists in low relief directly alongside Daddi’s Virgin and Child, as well as in the Assumption scene. They may have been included to allow the visual deception of angel musicians that accentuated the dramatic component of the ritual. For whichever reason, the impression on the viewer may have formed a model for later depictions of angel musicians beside the throne rather than in front of it, as in the Baroncelli inheritors. This grouping could perhaps have influenced later depictions of the Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio and Pollaiulo.
In summary, laudesi companies were the mainstay of the popular Marian cult in Florence. They were also an important part of musical life in Florence and to a varying degree used instrumentalists in religious music. Laudesi were patrons of religious art and commissioned Marian altarpieces with musical influences. However, their main influence on the influx of angel instrumentalists around the throne of Marian altarpieces is likely to have been their devotional practices that closely coupled small musical ensembles with the veneration of Marian images.
The strongest influence on the influx of angel musicians into Marian altarpieces in Florence is likely to have been literary, from sources such as the Legenda Aurea that became more widely available as the popularity of the cult of Mary grew. The association between angel musicians with key events in the Life of the Virgin in these phenomenally popular texts cemented the idea of music-making angels in celestial scenes forever.
These texts were presumably available to artists working in the Veneto and here also there was a tradition of music produced by the confraternities founded during the late 13th and early 14th century. Like the laudesi of Florence, the scuole were major patrons of art in Venice at this time. For example, Giovanni Bellini was commissioned to paint altarpieces by at least four of the scuole piccole, including the well-known Madonna and Saints altarpiece (c.1480) with its angel musicians for San Giobbe. While the popularity of the Coronation of the Virgin was less than in Florence, the Madonna Enthroned paintings of the Veneto often included angel musicians. It would be interesting to investigate the influence of musical confraternities on the influx of musical angels in Venetian Marian altarpieces.
Mystery plays too incorporated angel musicians which created expectations for artworks. More specifically, they provided the inspiration and models for some of the ensembles and instruments used in Marian altarpieces. Strong prototypes for Marian subjects such as the Coronation of the Virgin may also have shaped expectations and determined trends, particularly in Florence where this was an enormously popular subject. And the ubiquitous influence of the laudesi devotion to Mary through music must also have played a part both through influencing the approach to Marian subjects and in the altarpieces they commissioned.
Aesthetics is another consideration. Duplication of angel musicians and their instruments on either side of the central throne was an effective way to achieve compositional symmetry, and also allowed the artist to fill up the picture space beautifully. In scenes containing massed ranks of witnesses or onlookers to a sacred event, instrumentalists playing easily discernable instruments such as long trumpets added visual interest among the massed ranks of angels and saints that became popular during the trecento, for example, Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin altarpieces (Figure 5a and b). However, such considerations are as ephemeral as artists’ personal preferences and cannot be investigated systematically.
In conclusion then, the invasion of angel musicians into Marian subjects such as the Coronation of the Virgin may have been influenced by contemporary mystic writings, illustrated manuscripts, a strong Florentine prototype and perhaps even a desire to fill space beautifully. The representations of musicians owe more to mystery play orchestras than to liturgical music, which creates a very interesting contradiction between the representations of celestial music and the ecclesiatical tradition of the time.
Primary source material
Halsall, P. (2001) Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend (Aurea Legenda) accessed 09/09/2007
Holy Bible, Latin Vulgate, accessed 02/09/2007
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