Thursday, June 23, 2011

Santa Croce!!!


The Santa Croce church is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Mendicant Order. His philosophy of teaching and worship centered on giving up worldly possessions and living modestly like the people. In the movies, they are the monks who wear rough brown woolen robes, with a rope tied around their waist like a belt.

Of all of the churches in Florence, I think this is the one that I love the most- inside and out. It was the first church that my roommate and I saw on our first day in Florence and it is the church closest to our campus and nearest the river Arno.

Perhaps because I saw it on my first day in Florence, I always look for its tower in the skyline and feel happy when I see it.

The Nave and Wooden Ceiling (traditional in Florence) of Santa Croce

This morning we came to the church with Professor Junkerman for her first guided lecture. She began by explaining what the church would have looked like before the Renaissance, with frescoes painted on the walls. Today, only a few frescoes remain because many were stuccoed over during the Renaissance when the church was renovated by Vasari.

Frescoes discovered beneath the stucco! (half-way up the white wall)

One can see still see some original fresco remnants on the walls of the church above some elaborate tombs!

Tombs on the floor of Santa Croce's nave and the chapels next to the central altar

And speaking of tombs, I learned something new. I always assumed that chapels were built in a church as sacred areas for a specific worship purpose- in honor of the Virgin or a specific saint, for example. What I did not know, is that these chapels are endowed by a particular family or other financial patron. This individual/family/corporation pays to have a chapel placed in the church so that they will be that much closer to becoming the camel who successfully passes through the eye of a needle on their way to salvation (I think this comes from scripture when Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to attain salvation). Within cathedrals there are hierarchies of endowment, the lowest level are tombs on the ground floor, next up are tombs closer to the altar, next a place on the wall closer to the altar, next a chapel and the greatest and most expensive option is a chapel built closest to the altar. The idea was, that the closer you are buried to the sacred altar, the closer you are to salvation. A typical mix of the economic and the spiritual in Renaissance Florence.

For me this was such a simple, yet completely mind-altering piece of information. I'll never analyze a church in the same way again :) It makes me so glad to be a part of this program!

It was wonderful to be able to be guided through the church by Professor Junkerman, who had given a brief lecture on Giotto yesterday afternoon. I've seen pictures of his frescoes before, but it is so different to be able to see them in person and not at all as you would imagine them to look.

Giotto's frescoes on the walls and ceiling.

Giotto's frescoes.

 Giotto, The Funeral of St. Francis

 St. Francis making an appearance at a chapter house (monk meeting room at a monastery)

Going further into our exploration of the church we saw the frescoes of another famous artist, Taddeo Gaddi, who was a student of Giotto. Gaddi was particularly interested in light and his compositions are especially interesting for their slight use of shadow, which was very rare in art at that time. Why show a shadow when religious works are meant to bring people into the light? The lack of realism and naturalism in these early works were soon sacrificed to the Renaissance propensity for naturalism, but now that I know more about the intent, I appreciate the innovation and contribution of these early Italian painters. Marco commented that Giotto, like Dante is integral to the history of Florence. Florentines claim him with pride, for without his development of the "new painting" it is possible that there would not have been such a flourishing Renaissance.

The fresco series of Taddeo Gaddi and the altarpiece of Giotto. Gaddi was particularly interested in light, which unfortunately isn't very well captured in this picture.

Gaddi. Detail of the Shepherds. I don't know if you can tell but the holy light is so strong that one covers his eyes.

Santa Croce is also home to some amazing sculptural works:


Donatello's Annunciation Tabernacle. A tabernacle is a niche-like altar, rather than a tomb. Tabernacles with the Virgin and other saints abound in Florence. They are on buildings, street-corners and piazzas- essential and everywhere!

Donatello carved this tabernacle out of a blue sandstone that is mined outside of Fiesole. The statue is also decorated with gold. The contrast between the blue gray stone and the gold is particularly beautiful. I love the expressiveness of Donatello's sculpture. How Mary's body is turning away from the surprising news that she is carrying the Christ Child and at the same time her face is looking over at the angel telling her the news in total acceptance.

And of course the combination of incredible painting and sculpture can be found in the tombs and headstones lining the walls of the nave:

This is a tomb that is quite unusual. The curtains and frame of the tomb are actually an illusionist painted fresco. It is so well done that when you look across the room, you truly believe that you are surely looking at fine silk or velvet drapery.

Other illustrious tombs include:

 The headstone of Galileo Galilei!!

Or so I thought...

Galileo was persecuted by the church and placed under house arrest after the church "found" his scientific theories and writing to be heretical. However, the former tutor of Lorenzo the Magnificent was reclaimed by the city of Florence after his death. I stayed at the church long after our group had dispersed and listened in on another tour group. Apparently the actual tomb of Galileo is on the main floor of the cathedral next to the tomb of his mama.

The tomb of Galileo. It was often the practice to bury people in the main ground and create the elaborate headstones much later. After all, elaborate statue work does take much longer than burying a person!

The tomb and headstone of Michelangelo Buonarroti

The great Renaissance master is entombed here. Many of us stood around with a silly look on our face!

Next we left the main hall of the church to look at the cloister. Like the one at San Lorenzo, the one here is beautiful and peaceful.

The cloister

We then walked through the arched walkway to another of Santa Croce's treasures.


Walkway of the cloister with beautiful ornamentation on the ceiling. Just to the left we turned into...

Brunelleschi's Pazzi chapel was built to one side of the transept and its entrance faces the cloister. As a family who contributed significant money to the rebuilding of this cathedral, the Pazzi would have had their choice of chapels. However the Pazzi were the family that conspired against the Medici and managed to kill Lorenzo the Magnificent's brother Giovanni (only wounding Lorenzo). As a result they were exiled from Florence in disgrace, which meant that this chapel doesn't hold the tombs it was meant to. The architecture, however, speaks for itself.

Brunelleschi's Pazzi chapel. Simple. Minimalist. Lovely. Chapel.

After seeing the chapel we went to see the museum of the chiesa (church). One of the most important works is this crucifixion by Cimabue. It is the oldest surviving painted crucifixion. Unfortunately, it was heavily damaged in a flood that decimated Florence in the 1960's. With restoration the work is still able to be viewed and is one of Florence's greatest treasures. This painted cross with an image of Christ, the Virgin on the left, and I believe John the Baptist on the right is a crucifixion and not a crucifix because there are witnesses on the edges of the cross- no witness means that it would simply be considered a crucifix. Something else I learned!

After viewing Cimabue's Cross we continued on to the last room, which is likely the refectory of the cathedral (the room where the monks would have eaten). Here there is another great fresco by Taddeo Gaddi with an image of the Last Supper and the tree of Christ.

Taddeo Gaddi The Allegory of Christi and The Last Supper
Finally, after staying much longer than I had expected (like always) I headed out of the church and into the sunlight of the cloister- from which you exit. I took a couple of pictures of the family and guild crests that are mounted on the wall for you to see.

Detail of the Family Crests on the walls

View of Santa Croce from the cloister- on the left is the door to enter the church and straight ahead is the entrance to the Pazzi chapel.


  1. Totally amazing eye candy! I bet the frescoes look differently as the light of day progresses. Think you can bring back a sample of that blue sandstone?

  2. What have you been eating?! You cant eat frescos and churches! More pictures of you please! You know me.. im no historian. :)