Italy: Church, Museum, Both

We had time in Florence on Saturday before we had to pick up the rental car and head to our villa in the Tuscan countryside. Our hotel was a short walk from the great church of Santa Maria Novella, so we had a look in.

Of course, Italy is full of great musuems. The Uffizi was just across town from us. But we expected, and found, that churches great and small held art wonders as entrancing as those in any museum. A few Euro in the cash box on the way in seemed like a fair trade. Some, though, do sell tickets; Santa Maria Novella is one of them. The Dominican fathers have run Santa Maria Novella since 1868, and the church’s city location puts it in a high-traffic zone near a train station and the Ponte Vechhio. The ticket sales defray some of the cost, and the art inside is well worth it.

Another advantage of seeing art in Italian churches is that the atmosphere will always be quiet and reverential. Polite signs on the church doors firmly remind visitors that these are houses of worship first and museums second. The near-silence feels more appropriate for viewing the devotional masterworks inside. Contrast this with the “secular” museums, especially those that house famous works: Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia was worth seeing, but it was predictably crowded and loud on a June afternoon. I kept expecting to hear a PA announcement for the next bus to Tucson.

Our rule — well, my wife’s rule — in Italy was that if we saw a church, we went in. We rarely broke this rule, and we never regretted it. (At the very least, it was cool inside.) My wife and son are devout Catholics, so the opportunity to pause, pray, and appreciate was worthwhile to them. And I got the chance to see art as a particular expression of joy and reverence, the heart of man lifted up hopefully to a loving God.

Below, a sampling of some of the treasures at Santa Maria Novella. We came across a story that further humanized one of the key pieces. Filippo Brunelleschi, the 15th-century artist who found greater fame as an architect (he designed the dome of the Duomo), criticized his friend Donatello‘s crucifix at the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Donatello challenged Brunelleschi to do better. The carved wood crucifix in the Gondi chapel of Santa Maria Novella is the result. Legend has it that when Donatello came upon the finished work, he was so amazed he dropped the basket of eggs he was carrying. The Brunelleschi crucifix inspires similar awe to this day.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr

Above the main altar hangs this 13th century crucifix by Giotto.

Above the main altar hangs this 13th century crucifix by Giotto.

And here, toward the front of the church in its own chapel, the famous Brunelleschi carved wood crucifix.

And here, toward the front of the church in its own chapel, the famous Brunelleschi carved wood crucifix.

The secondary altar

The secondary altar

Between the painting, carving, and sculpture, there were endless feasts for the eyes.

Between the painting, carving, and sculpture, there were endless feasts for the eyes.

This severe bust decorated a churchman's wall-mounted tomb.

This severe bust decorated a churchman’s wall-mounted tomb.

Near the choir area

Near the choir area

Interesting architectural detail: a dramatic angel-wing lintel over the door to the robing room

Interesting architectural detail: a dramatic angel-wing lintel over the door to the robing room

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