The silver altar of San Giovanni
Masterpiece of silver, gold and enamels of Gothic and Renaissance art
In the Treasure Room of our Museum, the so-called "Silver Altar" of the Baptistery of San Giovanni shines. It is the frontal or, better, the antependium in silver, gold and enamels. The altar was commissioned in the fourteenth century by the Arte di Calimala (the corporation entrusted with the protection of the Baptistery of San Giovanni). The Altar, which was built by many different artists, was required over 100 years of work (1367-1483) and represents an extraordinary synthesis of the main Florentine goldsmith and sculpture trends from the Gothic age to the Renaissance. It is a monumental work, consisting of about 200 kg of silver and 1,050 enameled plates. Until the fourteenth century the work remained to decorate the front side of the main altar, then it was used to decorate a movable altar that was placed in the center of the Baptistery twice a year, on January 13 (feast of the Baptism of Christ) and on 24 June (feast of San Giovanni, patron saint of the city of Florence), to expose the church's treasure to the faithful: chalices, reliquaries, candelabra and liturgical vestments and then, from the 15th century, the large silver cross by Antonio del Pollaiolo and Betto by Francesco Betti. In 1477 it was transformed into an independent altar.
The Altar is quadrangular and consists of a long horizontal front and two short sides, mounted on a wooden frame and included between wooden frames. It is decorated with twelve reliefs depicting episodes of the life of St. John the Baptist, interrupted in the center by the statue of the titular saint, by Michelozzo, and set within pinnacles, balustrades, buttresses, pillars, galleries of saints and prophets painted or in relief.
The order of reading of the episodes is from the left to the right side, but does not correspond to the chronology of making the reliefs.
We bring you a legend to read this extraordinary story by figures:
1. Bernardo Cennini, Angel's announcement to Zacharias and Visitation, (left side, top).
2. Antonio del Pollaiolo, Birth of St. John the Baptist, (left side, below).
3. Goldsmith master of the second half of the fourteenth century, Saint John leaves his parents and goes into the desert (front side, bottom, first from left).
4. Master goldsmith of the second half of the fourteenth century, St. John preaches to the people (front side, bottom, second from left).
5. Master goldsmith of the second half of the fourteenth century, Saint John baptizes Jesus (front side, top, second from left).
6. Master goldsmith of the second half of the fourteenth century, Saint John indicates Christ to the disciples (front side, top, first from left).
7. Master goldsmith of the second half of the fourteenth century, Saint John denies that he is the Christ (front side, bottom, third from the left).
8. Leonardo di ser Giovanni (and workshop), Saint John, in prison, sends his disciples to Jesus (front side, bottom, fourth from left).
9. Master goldsmith of the second half of the fourteenth century, the disciples of St. John ask Jesus if He is the Messiah (front side, top, fourth from the left).
10. Leonardo di ser Giovanni, Saint John preaching before Herod (front side, top, third from the left).
11. Andrea del Verrocchio, Beheading of the Baptist (right side, below).
12. Antonio di Salvi and Francesco di Giovanni, Herod's banquet (right side, top).