Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Florence 2012 Journal: Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella was built as the city’s most important Dominican church and is largely Gothic in style. The facade was completed by Leon Battista Alberti in 1470 and was paid for by some of the most affluent families of Florence at the time. The name translates to the ‘new’ St. Mary; this is because the Dominican order who took hold of the church in the 13th century wanted to build over the earlier 9th century oratory, Santa Maria delle Vigne.

The layout of the church is a Dominican tau shaped cross. As with Santa Croce, there are 16th century altars that were an addition from Vasari, although they are far less imposing than those at Santa Croce. An example of this is the fact that Vasari deliberately avoided covering an earlier fresco on the wall. Instead, he built an altar structure around the painting (this has now been removed and only the fresco remains).

The fresco (above) was by Masaccio and depicts the holy trinity (1425). There are evident influences from Brunelleschi here in the depiction of coffers. As we know, Brunelleschi had studied the pantheon in order to build the dome (started in 1420 and completed in 1436) in Santa Maria del Fiore.
There are also notable features that suggest an influence from the Northern Renaissance. Firstly, the kneeling figures is something thought to be derived for a Dutch school but more importantly from the Netherlands came the idea of playing with death. At the bottom of the image, there is a skeleton, (a Memento Mori (reminder of death)) with an inscription that translates ‘I was that what you are and you will be that what I am now’.

A similar example of a painting that warns us that we will be ‘how they are’ is an early 16th century painting by Giorgione, with an elderly, toothless woman pointing inwards to herself. This was based on a poem by the late Lorenzo the Great (died 1492) about a young beautiful girl and the race to get married before she was too old.

Returning to the painting by Masaccio, there are four spectators in the scene. Two remain outside, likely to be the commissioners, and the two people either side of Christ are Mary and St John the Evangelist. Mary is seemingly detached from Christ’s death as she shows no sorrow and points us towards her son on the cross. This is usually interpreted to mean that Mary is already aware of the fact that he will resurrect and is therefore not upset. 

This painting is largely in one point perspective. Note how the people in front of Christ are not bigger, and that everything behind him gives a sense that they are receding. However, there is one exception: God the father. He is too large; by the rules of one point perspective he should be receding into the background as are the people in the foreground in order to make Christ the centre of attention. This bending of the rules is testament to how important God the father was – he must always be represented as the most important.

Another important piece of art that the church has is Giotto’s crucifix that has just been restored. The crucifix bears the innovative depiction of Christ’s belly (usually painted in three unnatural sections in the byzantine manner. See Right), that portrays the genuine effects of crucifixion on the belly. When someone is crucified, the lower abdomen appears hollow because the stomach rises up higher in the body and crushes the lungs.

Giotto’s crucifix (above) is on top of a rock formation at the bottom. Christ is painted as bleeding from his Stigmata; the blood is shown to be covering the rock underneath. If looked at closely, the very bottom of the rock has a slight niche where you can see a tiny skull. This represents Adam from the story of Genesis and follows the legend that Christ was killed on top of Adam’s burial ground in Golgotha and that Christ is dying to repent the sins that are seminally present in everyone because of the fall of Adam and Eve.

As mentioned earlier, rich families helped fund the build of the church and therefore have their own respective chapels. One of the families who helped fund the church was the Strozzi. Their chapel is to the left of the Capella Maggiore and it is decorated with frescoes with an altar piece in the middle. The subject matter of the chapel is the Last Judgement. The right wall depicts paradise, the middle wall purgatory whilst the last wall is a depiction of hell. There are a number of inscriptions that are derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The frescoes were completed by Andrea and Nardo di Cione and Niccolo Di Tommaso in 1360. The altar piece is slightly regressive in sophistication for its time because tt was made shortly after the Black Death. Therefore a handful of artists who knew the new techniques were gone whilst the ones who remained believed that the Black Death was caused by the less holy depictions of saints in art work. Finally, as with many altarpieces, this needs to remain in the chapel for the iconography to make sense. For example, the Predella of the altar piece where the devil and angels fight for the souls of the dead would not make contextual sense if sat in a museum.

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