Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano (Part 1)

Our thanks once again to our Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi for sharing with us photos taken during his recent travels. The cathedral of San Gimignano, although small, is full of interesting artworks, and will be presented in a series of five posts.

A bit more than 20 miles to the north-west of Siena, the town of San Gimignano stands on a hill in one of the most beautiful parts of Tuscany. Today, the city is well known for having preserved 13 medieval defensive towers (it used to have 72), which can be seen for miles around; tour guides are wont to jokingly refer to it as the medieval Manhattan. In the Middle Ages, when violent faction-fighting was a common feature of political life, most towns and cities bristled with such towers, but very few have survived to modern times. The city was also an important center for the manufacture and dyeing of cloth, and some scholars believe that the towers were built to such heights so that long bolts of newly dyed cloth could be hung up to dry inside them.
San Gimignano is not an episcopal see; it was part of the diocese of Volterra until 1782, when it was transferred to Colle Val d’Elsa (which itself was united to the archdiocese of Siena in 1986.) In the early 12th century, when it had become quite prosperous and powerful, it decided to build a large church in the city center which was served by a college of canons, and is therefore known as a collegiate church (“collegiata” in Italian). As is so often the case in Italy, different parts of the church were built and decorated in different eras; the 12th century Romanesque façade gives no idea of the artistic treasures that are seen inside. The door on the left was originally the entrance for the men, whose place within the church was in the left nave, and that on the right for women, who gathered in the right nave. As will be explained in subsequent posts, this division of the sexes determined which Biblical stories were depicted on the two sides of the church.
This plaque in the middle of the façade records that the Blessed Pope Eugenius III (1145-53) consecrated the church on November 21, 1148.
The baptismal font is located outside of the church within the cloister on the building’s left side. In the High Middle Ages, when most of the cities in northern and central Italy were independent states, many of them customarily delayed the baptism of healthy infants until the feast of the Annunciation, when they were all baptized together at a single ceremony. This rite signified that one became not only a member of the Church, but also of the specific place whose citizens were all reborn unto God in a common font; even to this day, a city as a legal entity is called a “comune” in Italian. Since the ceremony involved all of the infants, and their parents and godparents, many cities built very large baptisteries to accomodate the crowds; San Gimignano, however, never reached quite the degree of prosperity that would permit such a project, and so it settled for a very small font in a more open space.
Directly in front of the font, as one walks forward to enter the church, is this fresco of the Annunciation, the feast on which the common baptismal ceremony was held, dated to the year 1482. (Until the 1749, March 25 was New Year’s Day in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.) In 1475, the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, the future teacher of Michelangelo, came to San Gimignano to decorate the chapel within the collegiata which houses the relics of St Fina, a native of the city and one of its patrons; this fresco is attributed to his brother Davide, who often worked alongside him.
Just about uniquely among Italian churches, the walls of the church’s side aisles are still almost completely covered in frescos of Biblical stories, which are not intact, but in a remarkably good state of preservation, considering that they were done in the 14th century. (These will be shown in detail in the next two posts of this series.)
Here we see a piece of an older layer of fresco, showing the feet of St Christopher, which was left in place when the newer layer was added in the left aisle.
The high altar, made by the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano in 1475.
These two tondos of Ss Peter and John the Baptist are all that remains of a series of decorations done in the transepts by an anonymous Sienese painter of the 14th century.
Side altars in the transepts, rebuilt in the Counter-Reformation period.
The altar of the Blessed Sacrament at the end of the right transept, with a painting of the Supper at Emmaus.
The balustrade of the main sanctuary.

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