I was so lucky to spend time in the fascinating edifice of Orsanmichele, which started its life as a granary, but ended up a church with this gorgeous tabernacle by Andrea Orcagna. Oh goodness, how fortunate I was to drop in on these masterpieces as easily as you can go to a Starbucks in the USA! I knew I was blessed then and I feel it even now. I enjoy being reminded of my good fortune by silly old Facebook.
The plague, known contemporarily as “The Black Death,” struck hard in Italy in 1349. It was followed then, as the world is today after the Covid epidemic, by an economic crisis. One of the ramifications of that crisis was a sharp decline in the city’s magnificent sculptural output. So this exceptional production by Orcagna of the spectacular shrine pictured below in the Orsanmichele, the sculptural scene remained extremely barren until the closing decade of the 14th century.
Orcagna, who was a painter, sculptor and architect, was commissioned to execute the only the mammoth tabernacle for Orsanmichele. This Gothic marble structure, rather like a miniature church, was a religious and civic edifice built to house Bernardo Daddi’s repainting of a now-lost image of the Virgin and Child. Hexagonal reliefs of the virtues and octagonal reliefs of the Life of the Virgin alternate on the tabernacle’s base. The programme culminates in the large relief on the back, the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin. That’s where Orcagna both signed and dated his work.