Santa Maria Novella – a fusion of the beautiful arts

Florence has it all. In the Uffizi one can feast on a stunning collection of Renaissance paintings. The Accademia is home to the towering ‘David’ and other sculptures by Michaelangelo. This giant of the High Renaissance along with other major sculptors are represented in the magnificent collections of the Bargello. The street are studded with medieval and Renaissance palazzi. And churches of every size, style and denomination encrust the cities streets and piazzas.

Today at Santa Maria Novella I had one of those inspirational moments when it all comes together and you find a succession of beautiful treasures awaiting you. It was a lovely sunny morning and I was at the doors of the church as they opened. Taking the chance to skip past a hesitant tour group I found myself almost the first person in the building, gaining the rare opportunity to enjoy some peace before the building filled up with chattering, jostling tourists.

Architecture, sculpture, stained glass, panel painting, frescoes; all are represented with exquisite jewels. Where to begin? Having taken a few precious minutes as the only occupant of the Tornabuoni chapel, I was tempted to go back to the first chapel and follow the guide book route. But as I did so I began to notice the light coming in and the sheer beauty of the place. So, before focusing in on the details of this treasure trove, take a look at the beauty of a glorious space filled with sunlight.

 

The facade of the church is, as with other Florentine churches of the time, of green and white marble. It differs however by having the curving volutes designed by Leon Battista Alberti to hide the roof of the side aisles.

The interior of the church is T shaped with a harmonious nave and side aisles leading to the high altar and the transept.

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As one walks up the nave one passes under Giotto’s giant crucifix towards the high altar and the Tornabuoni chapel.

I will explore the rest of the church by looking at the art by type rather than location.

Frescoes in situ

The main chapel, commissioned by the Tornabuoni family, runs behind the high altar. Its frescoes by the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (including the young Michaelangelo) show scenes from the life of the Virgin on the left wall and from the life of St John the Baptist on the left wall. As I enjoyed a few minutes of solitude I marvelled at the clarity of line and beautiful colours in these well preserved works.

Life of the Virgin:

Life of St John the Baptist:

The most famous fresco in the church is the ‘Holy Trinity’ by Masaccio. This work marked the establishment of the Renaissance breakthrough of linear perspective and the vanishing point; even at the time of its creation is provided a teaching aid for contemporaneous artists.

To the right of the main chapel is the Strozzi chapel, beautifully frescoed, at the end of his career, by Filippino Lippi.

The frescoes in the adjacent Bardini chapel date from the 12th century and are the work of Spino Aretino.

On the interior wall of the facade is found a 14th century fresco showing the annunciation and the birth and baptism of Christ.

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Frescoes which are detached

There are several sections of frescoes which have been moved from their original location during restoration.

Sandro Botticelli ‘Adoration of the Magi’

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Andrea Orcagno ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ and ‘The Golden Door’.

Orcagna school ‘Deposition and Saints’

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Panel painting

In the Strozzi di Mantova chapel one finds a beautiful gothic polyptych painted by Andrea Orcagna.

On the altar in the Bardi chapel is Vasari’s ‘Madonna of the Rosary’.

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Stained glass

I often overlook the stained glass in churches but today, with the sun streaming in and casting beautiful colours across the stonework, they demanded my attention. And quite correctly too; their production requires thematic drawing and planning of colour schemes as well as meticulous craft in construction.

The large rose window was executed in 1365.

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The large windows of the main chapel were designed by Ghirlandaio and installed by Alessandro Agolanti.

In similar fashion, the artist responsible for the frescoes in the Strozzi chapel, Filippino Lippi, designed its window.

The glass in the Strozzi di Mantova chapel dates from the 14th century.

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Sculpture

Santa Maria Novella contains a wealth of sculpted articles, some serving as part of the structure and function of the building while others are decorative.

The pulpit attached to one of the columns in the nave was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1443.

A carved marble basin atop a porphyry stand serves as a receptacle for Holy water.

3146D3C1-52DF-45B1-BACE-57EA95450A15In the sacristy one finds a beautiful glazed terracotta lavabo by Giovanni Della Robbia, a typical example of this type of work in which his family excelled.

285A72CD-C3D7-43FD-96A2-C0D5BA0DBEA2The high altar is itself a later, nineteenth century addition decorated with fine marble columns and figures which today shone in the brilliant sunlight.

Decorative sculpture enriched the chapels of the transept. In the Rucellai chapel are found a bronze floor tomb by Lorenzo Ghiberti and a marble Madonna and Child by Nino Pisano.

Florence boasts three wooden crucifixes by masters of the Renaissance. I have already seen those by Michaelangelo in Santo Spirito and Brunelleschi in Santa Croce (although one is kept at a considerable distance from this latter work). To the left of the main chapel here one finds the creation of Donatello.

A5657EC8-71E8-42F0-B309-D29EB1C0826AFor interest I’ll show the works by Michaelangelo, to the left, and Brunelleschi to allow comparison; which one do you like best?

For me, by dint of grace and poise it’s Michaelangelo. And one can admire his carving again, this time in marble, in a small caryatid with an antique green marble vase on top; it is very easy to overlook this work in an inconspicuous corner at floor level.

The cloisters

As if these gifts weren’t enough, the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella offer up a procession of further wonders. Exiting by a door midway up the left aisle one enters the first cloister, the Chiostro Verde.

Here Paulo Uccello frescoed ‘Scenes from the Old Testament’; badly damaged by the catastrophic floods of 1966 they have been restored and are on display in the nearby museum

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Leading off the cloister is the funerary area known as the Chiostro del Morte. Here one finds the Chapel of the Annunciation frescoed by Andrea Orcagna.

Spanish chapel

From the Chiostro Verde on can enter the splendour of the Spanish Chapel, so named for its dedication to Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Grand Duke Cosimo I. The amazing fresco cycle is the work of Andrea Di Buonaioto. This is the chapel where John Ruskin, writing in ‘Mornings in Florence’ erected a scaffold and spent five days examining one section of wall. Fear not, I will be much more succinct.

The wall facing as one enters shows ‘The Passion and Resurrection of Christ’

On the right wall is ‘The Church Militant and Triumphant’

The left wall has a very complex theological arrangement which is well worth studying but beyond my scope here; it shows ‘The Triumph of St Thomas and Allegory of the Sciences’

D856304A-5ECA-4FD3-B082-45AD76AD0DF6Finally one reaches the Large Cloister, a series of 56 round arched bays around a central lawn whose walls are frescoed with stories of the Dominican saints.

And finally, if one looks closely one can find a plaque showing the level to which the flood waters rose in November 1966; it is shown on the left hand photo below and stands well above head height.

I left with spirits high and joy in my heart from having been fortunate enough to experience the sheer beauty of Santa Maria Novella.

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