Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Two Artistic Treasures in Florence

I recently visited the older of the two Dominican churches in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, and got to see a couple of its many artistic treasures in a very unusual way. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the walls of many churches, but especially those of the mendicants, were decorated with frescoes which were commissioned to decorate chancery altars, or as votive offerings. Since they were not designed as a unit, but painted one by one as the commissions happened to be made, the result was often a patchwork of different styles from different periods, and sometimes, the same Saint or sacred event might be shown more than once within a relatively small space. We have previously shown an example of this phenomenon in the baptistery of the cathedral of Parma.

This kind of disorganization came to be greatly disliked in the Counter-Reformation period, in no small part also because the styles of the paintings were considered extremely old-fashioned. (As I pointed out repeatedly to the students with whom I visited this church and several others, the barbarians who vandalized so many of our churches in 1960s and ’70s were not the first of the their kind.) In 1565, therefore, the painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari was brought in to clear the old frescoes off the walls of the church’s nave, and replace them with new side-altars, each graced with a large altarpiece. He also dismantled the choir, which was removed behind the main altar, and of course the rood screen, over which hung one of the most famous works of the early Renaissance, the great Crucifix of Giotto (1290-95).

However, Vasari could not bring himself to destroy one of the church’s other most famous works, the Trinity of Masaccio, commissioned for a chancery altar in the left side-aisle in the later 1420s, and a watershed moment in the use of mathematical perspective in painting. Finding no way to move it or otherwise preserve it, he built one of the new altars in front of it. In 1860, when Vasari’s altars were partly redesigned in the neo-Gothic style, this altar was taken down, and Masaccio’s Trinity was thus rediscovered. The painting is currently undergoing restoration, and during our recent visit, my group and I were able to go up on the scaffolding and stand right in front of it.

Many chancery altars were made primarily for the celebration of Masses for the Dead for the family of the people who commissioned them. As I noted above, such altars were especially common in the churches of the mendicants, because they provided a steady source of income to communities which had no land-endowment to provide revenue to live on. The identity of the people who commissioned this altar is unknown, but the skeleton seen here indicates its primary purpose. Over it is written a memento mori, a rhyming couplet in late medieval Tuscan: “Io fu’ g(i)à quel che voi sete, e quel ch’i’ son, voi anco sarete. – I was what you are, and what I am, you also will be.”

Mirabile dictu, in 2018, another painting was discovered on the wall behind another of Vasari’s altars, this one a fresco by an unknown artist, which shows St Thomas Aquinas teaching a group of students. It was painted right around the time of Thomas’ canonization in 1323, and is believed by many to be the oldest image of him as a Saint in existence. (According to a friend of mine who is extremely knowledgeable about the early history of the Dominicans, this distinction may belong to a picture in their church in Bologna instead.)

The altar with the Vasari painting pushed back into its place.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: