Ghirlandaio and his Workshop Paint the Tornabuoni Chapel Frescos

The main chapel of Santa Maria Novella was first frescoed in the mid-14th century by Andrea Orcagna.

Remains of these paintings were found during restorations in the 1940s: these included, mostly in the vault, figures from the Old Testament. Some of these were detached and can be seen today in the Museum of the church.

By the late 15th century, Orcagna's frescoes were in poor condition. The Sassetti, a rich and powerful Florentine family who were the bankers of the Medici, had long held the right to decorate the main altar of the chapel, while the walls and the choir had been assigned to the Ricci family. However, the Ricci had never recovered from their bankruptcy in 1348, and so they arranged to sell their rights to the choir to the Sassetti. Francesco Sassetti wanted the new frescoes to portray stories of St. Francis of Assisi; however, the Dominicans, to whom Santa Maria Novella was entrusted, refused. Sassetti therefore moved the commission to the church of Santa Trinita, where Ghirlandaio executed one of his masterworks, the Sassetti Chapel. The rights to the chapel in Santa Maria Novella that were lost by the Sassetti were then sold by the Ricci to Giovanni Tornabuoni.

Ghirlandaio, who then had the largest workshop in Florence, did not lose the commission however, because on September 1, 1485 Giovanni Tornabuoni commissioned him to paint the main chapel, this time with the lives of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, patron of Tornabuoni and of the city of Florence. It is possible that the new scenes followed the same pattern as Orcagna's.

Ghirlandaio worked to the frescoes from 1485 to 1490, with the collaboration of his workshop artists, who included his brothers Davide and Benedetto, his brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi and, probably, the young Michelangelo Buonarroti. The windows were also executed according to Ghirlandaio's design. The complex was completed by an altarpiece portraying the Madonna del Latte in Glory with Angel and Saints, flanked by two panels with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Lawrence. On the recto a Resurrection of Christ was painted. This work is now held divided between the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin and the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.