Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence

Today, the city of Florence keeps the feast of St Miniatus (or Minias; “San Miniato” in Italian), who was martyred there during the persecution of Decius in 250-51 A.D. The authentic story of his martyrdom is now lost to us; he is traditionally said to have been either a Roman soldier, or, in another version, the son of an Armenian king, and was beheaded for being a Christian after various torments. He was buried on the large hill that looms over the city on the far side of the Arno river; a small shrine was built over the site of his burial, but replaced in the early 11th century by a magnificent basilica, one of the finest examples of Romanesque art in all of Italy. His relics today are kept in the crypt of the church. In a city much more famous as the home of so many of the great artworks of the Renaissance, San Miniato al Monte serves as a reminder of an earlier and no less glorious artistic past. Since the 14th century, the basilica has been the home of a community of Olivetan monks, who still sing the much of the Mass and Office in Latin and with Gregorian chant. (Unfortunately, Romanesque churches tend to have fewer and smaller windows than a modern photographer would consider ideal.)

The façade, built towards the end of the 11th century, is decorated with a classically Tuscan mix of local white and green marbles, as can also be seen in the city’s Baptistery and the façade of Santa Maria Novella.
As in many Italian Romanesque churches, the choir and principal sanctuary are significantly higher than the floor of the nave, with a crypt directly below them, much lower than the floor of the nave. The relics of San Miniato are in the altar of the crypt-chapel. The small aediculum seen in the middle used to house a famous crucifix. St John Gualbert, a Florentine monastic reformer of the 11th century, once came to pray before it and ask whether he was indeed called to become a monk; his vocation was confirmed when the figure of Christ on the Cross nodded to him.
The nave seen from the choir.
The apsidal mosaic (1297), showing Christ and the Virgin Mary, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists, and St Miniatus, who is here labelled “King of Armenia.”
The choir of the church contains a great deal of very beautiful and elaborate inlaid marble work from the early 13th century, as seen here on the side of the main pulpit.
The balustrade of the choir. The crucifix in the background is attributed the famous Della Robbia workshop, better known for their colored terracotta work.
Frescoes from various periods survive on the walls of San Miniato, one right next to another; here, the part on the left is from the later 13th or early 14th century, the part on the right (Saint Jerome) from the mid-15th. In many other Florentine churches, as elsewhere, walls covered with these works of mixed styles and periods were stripped bare during the Counter-Reformation.
Frescoes in a more classically Florentine Renaissance style, 15th century.
Large images of St Christopher such as this were created in reference to the tradition that honored him as a Patron Saint against sudden death; it was popularly believed that if one saw an image of him, one would suffer no harm or violence on that day. Pictures of him were therefore made very large so that they would be easy to spot; the tradition that Christopher himself was a giant probably derives from them.
The ceiling of the church also preserves an elaborate style of decoration (here much restored) that was eliminated in many places during the Counter-Reformation.
Florence seen from the steps of San Miniato.

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