"Renaissance Art in Santa Maria Novella" Top 5 Page for this destination Santa Maria Novella Tip by brendareed
Santa Maria Novella, Florence: 42 reviews and 64 photos
Santa Maria Novella is one of the major churches in Florence. It is a Dominican church that is situated near the train station. From an art standpoint, it is a wonderful place, full of great pieces that are important to a study of Renaissance art.
Imagine the hustle and bustle of Florence in the 13th and 14th centuries! Santa Maria Novella was one of four major construction projects within the city at that time (to include the cathedral) so artisans would have no problem finding work.
To enter the church, go through the gate to the right of the church façade, follow the pathway that winds around the courtyard and then brings you back to the church halfway around. As of January 2012, admission was €3.50 and well worth the price for the quality of art within the church.
As you enter the church, you can immediately see Masaccio’s Holy Trinity across the room on the wall. This fresco (1426) is a very important painting in the development of Renaissance artwork; often considered the most perfect piece of early Renaissance art. First, look at the architecture painted in the fresco – doesn’t it give the feeling that the wall is going in…a three dimensional effect. The use of reds gives depth. Your eyes actually look towards the back because the classical pillars and ceiling of the painting give the feeling of added space to the room. Masaccio used this one point perspective in his Tribute in the Brancacci Chapel as well. It was Masaccio that Michelangelo said he was inspired by.
But there’s more to this painting than the perspective. Look at the people in the lower part of the painting – the ones outside the little room created by the perspective. These are the patrons – the ones that paid for the work; they are the same size as the other figures in the painting – Christ, Mary, John the Evangelist – which demonstrates a new dignity of the wealthy that we don’t see in earlier works where the patron is small and rather insignificant to the piece. These figures create a large triangle within the work – Christ at the top point and the patrons the lower points. And within this triangle is a smaller triangle of Christ, Mary, and John. Also, the patrons are harmonious with the saints in the colors of their robes (note: the female patron’s robe is supposed to be the same color as Mary’s but it was later repainted, which explains its different color). If you look closely at Mary’s robe, you can see the faint grid pattern used by the artist to set up the painting.
And the Holy Trinity is symbolized in the painting – Christ the Son; God the Father at the top, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (the white collar-like thing between God and Christ).
Finally, look at the skeleton below – just so that you don’t become complacent with your life, it reminds you “I was once what you are now and what I am, you will become.”
For an informative video about this magnificent and ground breaking painting, visit the Khan Academy website.
Now turn around and look at the church itself (I had to get that painting discussion out of the way – it is one of my favorites and felt it should get top priority in this tip!). The black and white stripes indicate the Dominicans. You can see a visible altar, a new thing back when this was being built – the altar used to be behind a screen.
As you are looking towards the altar from back near the Masaccio, look up at the crucifix hanging from the ceiling in the center of the church. This is a very famous Giotto work, devotional in nature, creating a very realistic Christ on the cross. It was painted on wood and is original to the church and considered one of their more valuable artworks.
Heading up towards the altar, you will find several smaller chapels, including two commissioned by the wealthy Strozzi family. The chapel on the far left of the transept was painted by Orcagna and his brother, Nardo di Cione. The fresoes were inspired by Dante’s Inferno and show the Last Judgment where even the wealthy and churchmen find themselves in a hell that is compartmentalized according to their sins. This chapel was done after the plague and the altarpiece is a return to that former conservative pre-plague look.
Turn back and head towards the altar, stopping just before at the chapel to the left of the altar. The crucifix hanging in this chapel was designed by Brunelleschi after bragging to Donatello that he could sculpt a more human and lifelike Christ than Donatello had done (Donatello’s Crucifix can be seen across town in Santa Croce Church). In the end, it was agreed that Brunelleschi’s Christ was indeed the more human looking of the two.
The altar is decorated with frescoes by Ghirlandaio, who it is said gave his patrons their monies worth. The frescoes show the Tournabourni family (relatives to the Medici) portrayed in various scenes from the Virgin Mary’s life. Giovanni Tournabourni can be easily recognized by her full brocade dress in the scene Nativity of Mary (bottom right scene on left side of chapel). Notice anything else in this scene? Look at the red/pink architecture in the background at the top of the steps – looks like this artist was influenced by Masaccio’s Holy Trinity. The influence of Donatello’s choir stalls from the Cathedral (seen at the Cathedral Museum) can also be seen in this scene.
On the top right scene on the right hand side, there is some work possibly by a very young Michelangelo – notice the naked male (one of Michelangelo’s trademarks) and in a pose reminiscent of Masaccio’s Tribute.
Beside the altar on the right is the second Strozzi Chapel, done by Filippino Lippi on the lives of St. John and St. Philip.
Before you walk away from the church, be sure to look at the façade on the front. This façade was designed by Alberti, who had to work around tombs that were already in the front of the building (the brown doors. This façade is classically influenced and it geometrically designed.
There is more to see at Santa Maria Novella; these tips only highlight the Renaissance works. I will create a separate tip for the Green Cloister and Museum of the church, which is worth a visit as well (it is a separate fee as it is connected with the church’s museum).
Open weekdays 9 a.m. - 5.30 p.m.
Fridays 11 a.m. - 5.30 p.m.
Saturdays 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Sundays and religious holidays 1 p.m. - 5 p.m.
Once you have had your fill of the church, there is more Renaissance art to see next door in the Santa Maria Novella cloisters, including some works by Uccello.
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Novella
Directions: across from the central train station
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