Sant’Ambrogio church

a hidden gem in Florence

One thing is certain: in Florence we cannot complain about scarce access to the cultural sights. Here we breathe history literally at every corner. Despite this incredible richness, it is still very difficult to convince many travellers that it is worth abandoning the beaten path. Many hidden gems wait for these, who will take a turn and who will try to get lost between the medieval streets of the historical centre. One of these little-known treasures is the church of Sant’Ambrogio.

The history of the church

Sant’Ambrogio is one of the most ancient churches in Florence. It is mentioned already in 988 and it is established as a Benedictine female monastery. The church is dedicated to Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan who stayed in Florence between 393 and 394 and who consecrated San Lorenzo, the first Florentine cathedral.

Sant'Ambrogio interior
Interior of the Sant’Ambrogio church in Florence

The miracle of Sant’Ambrogio

In 1230 the church of Sant’Ambrogio became a theatre of an Eucharistic miracle, which would strongly influence the cults and the devotional practices promoted in the church. According to the tradition, on 30 December 1230 an elderly priest, Uguccione, while officiating the mass didn’t wipe out the chalice properly. Soon after, when he took it in his hands again, he find warm flesh and blood inside. The nuns attending the mass were speechless.  The miraculous substance was transferred to a crystal phial and brought to the bishop for examination. After a while the relic returned to Sant’Ambrogio, carried in a sumptuous procession.

This miracle is one of various extraordinary events, which celebrate and underline the Christian belief in transubstantiation. Already in the late twelve century the Catholic church promoted the cult of the host remarking the idea that during each mass the bread and the wine change substance and become flesh and blood of Christ. In the same period, the eucharistic miracles occurred also in Liège, where Saint Juliana revealed her mysterious visions of the moon in its full splendour, cut in half by a dark stripe. Saint Juliana reported her conversations with God, who asked her to establish a new celebration dedicated to the cult of Jesus’ flesh and blood.

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The miracle of Bolsena and the festivity of Corpus Domini

In 1263  yet another miraculous event happened. During a holy mass celebrated in Bolsena, a locality at the Bolsena lake in Northern Lazio, the consecrated host began to bleed and it stained the corporal, the small linen cloth put under the chalice during the mass. The mass was celebrated by the priest Peter of Prague, who used to doubt in the real transubstantiation of bread and wine during the mass. His doubts were dispelled by this inexplicable event. The miracle of Bolsena was confirmed by the pope Urban IV who established also the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the so-called Corpus Domini.

The Florentine miracle in Sant’Ambrogio had its important place in the birth of this new cult. This is why the Benedictine nuns from the monastery made sure that the reliquary containing the miraculous substance was properly protected and displayed within the church.

Mino da Fiesole, Tabernacle in Sant'Ambrogio
Mino da Fiesole, Tabernacle in the Chapel of the Miracle, 1484.

The Chapel of the Miracle

The Eucharistic miracle of Sant’Ambrogio is recalled and celebrated in the Chapel of the Miracle located on the left of the presbytery. The chapel is decorated by the marble tabernacle sculpted by Mino da Fiesole, which used to protect and house the miraculous substance. The tabernacle underlines the idea of transubstantiation. At the centre you can see Child Jesus emerging from a Chalice supported by the two angels. Above the little window hiding the Eucharistic relic there is the dove of Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father, who blesses the believers from the top  of the tabernacle.

The sculpture has a magnificent classicizing form with the two side pilasters decorated with vegetal bas-reliefs and a splendid cornice surmounting the trabeation. Below the chalice with Child Jesus you can see the scene related to the story of the miracle. At the centre priest Uguccione shows the miraculous substance to the astonished nuns. Mino da Fiesole’s tabernacle recalls this event and offers a safe location for the precious relic.

Cosimo Rosselli, The Four Church Fathers
Cosimo Rosselli, the Four Church Fathers in the vault, fresco paiting, 1484-1486.

The walls of the chapel were decorated by Cosimo Rosselli straight after the works on the tabernacle were concluded. Rosselli worked on the frescoes in the chapel between 1484 and 1486. He painted the figures of angels on both sides of Mino’s tabernacle. On the ceiling we can admire the Four Church Fathers, while the left wall represents the scene of the faithful gathered in Piazza Sant’Ambrogio for a procession worshiping the relic.

Cosimo Rosselli, The Procession in Sant'Ambrogio
Cosimo Rosselli, the Procession in Sant’Ambrogio, fresco painting, 1484-1486.

This unique fresco gives us a unique opportunity to sneak around fifteenth-century Florence. Women gather together and they are separated from men. Look at the contemporary dresses and headgears. In the crowd we can also recognize some famous Florentines. On the left the painter himself looks at us boldly. In the group of the three men standing just to the right of the artist we can recognize Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the middle, Angelo Poliziano on his right and (with greater doubts) Marsilio Ficino on his left. There are probably many more portraits of contemporary Florentines in the scene but we cannot recognize them anymore.

Cosimo Rosselli, detail of the fresco in Sant'Ambrogio
Cosimo Roselli is the man with the black hat on the left of the fresco, looking at the spectator. On the right the three men are Marsilio Ficino (?), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano.

Rosselli’s fresco is like a short visit to Florence in 1484.

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Sant’Ambrogio and the tombs of the artists

Besides the Chapel of the Miracle, Sant’Ambrogio is an important place for the Florentine memory. During the centuries the church became a sort of memorial place for many of the Florentine artists.

tomb of Mino da Fiesole
tomb of Mino da Fiesole.

In Sant’Ambrogio we can visit the tomb of Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo’s master and author of the famous statue of David. After having worked in the church on the tabernacle in the Chapel of the Miracle, also the sculptor Mino da Fiesole was buried here. Sant’Ambrogio houses also the tombs of Simone del Pollaiuolo called Il Cronaca and of Francesco Granacci.

tomb of Verrocchio
tomb of Andrea del Verrocchio.

Sant’Ambrogio at the Uffizi

During the centuries some works, which used to decorate Sant’Ambrogio, were moved to the Uffizi Gallery, where you can still find them today. One of them is Masaccio and Masolino’s Saint Anne, Madonna and Child. The painting was commissioned by Nofri Del Brutto Buonamici, a member of a family of weavers. This is why behind Saint Anne you can see this marvellous piece of woven cloth decorated with red pomegranates. On the panel Child Jesus, painted probably by Masaccio, testifies the artist’s interest in the classical sculpture as it almost resembles a Roman bust.

Masolino and Masaccio, Saint Anne, Madonna and Child, 1424-1425 ca., Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

To express the idea of subsequent generations and female fertility, which produces life, the bodies of Saint Anne, her daughter Mary and Mary’s son, Jesus, interpenetrate each other. We can draw a continuous line along Saint Anne’s right arm, that continues with Mary’s right arm, which holds Jesus’ left leg and ends in Jesus’ gesture of benediction. The painting expresses the generative force of life, family love and protection.

Masaccio Saint Anne
Virtual line that unites the protagonists of the scene.

At the Uffizi you can also admire the painting, which used to decorate the main altar in Sant’Ambrogio. It is Filippo Lippi’s Maringhi Conornation. This magnificent work represents Virgin Mary being crowned in the heavens by God the Father. The event seems almost “staged” as a spectacle for us to admire. Under the central group the saints gathered to assist to this important event. We can recognize Saint Laurence, Job, Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Eustache with his wife Saint Theopista and their children. The whole scene is also followed by a group of little angels, who resemble the Florentine kids. Some of them, in fact, are quite bored by the whole thing, distract the others and wait for the celebrations to end.

Filippo Lippi, Maringhi Coronation, 1439-1447, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Among the participants to this holy event, Lippi included himself, as well as the commissioner, Francesco Maringhi, who unfortunately died before the painting was ready.

Imagine this painting located at the main altar in Sant’Ambrogio! It undoubtedly attracted faithful’s attention and curiosity!

As you can see, Sant’Ambrogio is definitely worth a visit. My advice for your visit to Florence is that you try to get lost between the streets of the city. Abandon the beaten path and explore the less-know areas! Surprises wait for you at every corner!

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