San Miniato al Monte

medieval spirituality in art and architecture

San Miniato al Monte is one of the most precious monuments of Romanesque architecture in Florence. Its geometrical façade decorated with white and green marbles, its unique spiritual atmosphere and the stunning view from its terrace make of San Miniato a compulsory sight during a visit to Florence and a favourite destination of walks and city breaks for the Florentines. The origins of this ancient foundation get lost in the darkness of the first centuries of Christianity. The aura of mystery surrounds also the figure of San Miniato, the saint worshiped at the top of the Monte alle Croci already in the 8th century. Who was he? A soldier? An Armenian King?  Facts mix with legends and tales. Undoubtedly, San Miniato transports us to a different dimension. Let us travel back in time… Imagine we’re in Florence in 1018…

San Miniato al Monte, Florence, facade.
San Miniato al Monte, facade.

Who was San Miniato?

Medieval hagiographic legends circulating about Miniato tell various versions of his life. According to some, in 250 AD Miniato, an Armenian King, or an Armenian soldier, found himself in Florence. At the time, the Roman Empire was ruled by Emperor Decius. After decades of religious tolerance, Decius tried to promote the Roman public pietas and obliged all the citizens to perform sacrifices in honour of the Roman deities. Miniato refused to hold these rituals, therefore he was captured and martyred. The legend states that Miniato, after his head was cut off, gathered it and with the head in his hand climbed the hill at the gates of Florence. Once reached the top of the Monte alle Croci, Miniato lied down and required to be buried there.
In 738 AD the cult of Saint Miniato at the top of the Monte alle Croci was documented by Charlemagne’s diploma, which mentioned an oratory dedicated to the saint located at the gates of Florence. The story of the present basilica, however, began only in 1018 when the Bishop of Florence Ildebrando promoted the construction of the new church substituting the ancient oratory. The construction of the church developed, probably, through various building campaigns, and it was concluded only in 1207.

San Miniato al Monte, Florence. The relics of Saint Miniato.
The relics of Saint Miniato hidden under the altar in the crypt.

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San Miniato Basilica

San Miniato is one of the highest expressions of Romanesque architecture in Florence. Inside the church we are immediately captured by its unique, spiritual atmosphere. The church is divided in three naves by two rows of monumental columns. The area of main altar follows a typically Romanesque structure, with a crypt supporting an elevated presbytery. You can observe a similar spatial organization, for example, in the Romanesque Cathedral in Fiesole dedicated to San Romolo, construction of which started in 1028, just ten years after the beginning of the works at San Miniato.

San Miniato al Monte, interior
San Miniato al Monte, interior.

The crypt in San Miniato conceals the relics of the saint martyr, that are buried under the main altar. The crypt is the most sacred and the most ancient area of the Basilica. The cross vaulted ceiling is decorated with the frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi representing the saints and the martyrs. Gaddi, a pupil of Giotto, painted this decoration in 1342, just few years after the conclusion of his most important work, the frescoes in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce.

San Miniato al Monte, crypt
San Miniato al Monte, crypt.

The vault of the crypt is supported by six rows of thin columns. Here, just like in the church and in the presbytery, the builders of the basilica placed at the top of the columns reused Roman capitals, the so-called spolia.  In the whole basilica one can spot thirty eight ancient capitals, coming from numerous ancient buildings of Florence and Rome. The use of spolia was very common during the 11th and the 12th centuries. Rome was a bottomless source of construction material, ready to use, cheap and easily available. Pagan temples, bath complexes, fora, theatres and basilicas, already ruined and abandoned, were cut into pieces and the precious marbles, once glorifying the Roman Emperors, were now used for the constructions of Christian temples in honour of Saints and martyrs. In Florence you can find other spolia in the Baptistery and in the church of the Holy Apostles. In San Miniato, however, quantity and variety of the Roman capitals is truly impressive.

Taddeo Gaddi, Saints and Martyrs, fresco painting, 1342, San Miniato al Monte, Florence.
Taddeo Gaddi, Saints and Martyrs, fresco painting, 1342, crypt, San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

The mosaic and the tetramorph

If you leave the crypt and climb the presbytery, the upper part of the church will surprise you with its Romanesque decoration. The vault of the apse is covered with a shining mosaic representing Christ in throne with Mary, Saint Miniato and the symbols of the four Evangelists, the so-called tetramorph.

San Miniato al Monte, florence, mosaic in the apse, 13th century.
Mosaic in the apse with Christ in throne, Saint Miniato, Virgin Mary and the tetramorph, 13th century.

The tetramorph was a very common motive, frequently used in Medieval art. It originated from Medieval interpretations of the Old Testament vision of Ezekiel and fragments of Saint John’s Apocalypse, which mentioned the four living creatures, winged beasts with four faces: one of a man, one of an eagle, one of a lion and one of an ox. Irenaeus first and Saint Jerome subsequently linked the four creatures with the four Evangelists. And so, Saint Matthew was paired with an angel, Saint John with an eagle, Saint Mark with a lion and Saint Luke with an ox. In the Medieval art the Evangelists were often substituted by the image of the tetramorph, while later the Biblical creatures will become the Evangelists’ attributes.   

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Sunbeam in San Miniato al Monte
Sunbeams illuminating the Basilica.

The marble decoration

The area of the presbytery is dominated by a Romanesque marble pulpit, a beautiful example of medieval sculpture. The marble lectern is supported by the figure of eagle, which symbolizes Saint John the Evangelist. The pulpit is attached to a marble fence that divides the presbytery from the rest of the church. Decorated with geometrical and floral motives, the fence protects the most sacred area of the church, in the past accessible only for the clergy.

In San Miniato the marbles not only decorate these sculptural elements but they cover also the entire floor of the Basilica. The inlay floor is populated by fantastic animals who protect the holiness of the sacred space and fight against the evil.

Medieval time

One of the floor panels, decorated with the symbols of the zodiac signs, functions as a sundial. Every year on the day of the summer solstice a sunbeam hits the sign of Cancer and thus marks the arrival of the longest day of the year. If the presence of sundials in the holy spaces of the Christian basilicas may be surprising for us today, it was quite common in the past. In Florence you can find astrological instruments not only in San Miniato but also in the Cathedral, in the Baptistery and in Santa Maria Novella.

Summer solstice, sundial
Sundial in San Miniato al Monte on the day of summer solstice, the sunbeam hits the symbol of Cancer.

The presence of these instruments in the Florentine churches relates to the Medieval religious philosophy of time, astrology and astronomy. In the Middle Ages the astrology and the astronomy were considered the disciplines in between science and magic divinisation. Astronomy was considered one of physical sciences that described the movements of the matter and their effects on the life on the Earth. The movement of the planets marked also the passing of time. The Medieval church believed that its spiritual call required a universal control over the time, understood as divine matter, which the religious authorities needed to organize and calculate in the name of God. The Christian order was established around a new calendar of feasts and liturgical celebrations, and every day was organized around canonical hours dedicated to prayer. Each day, on a given hour, the sound of the bells called the faithful to the holy mass. Sundials, water clocks and, later, mechanical clocks were installed in the churches to measure the time, which God in his benevolence granted us on the Earth. The presence of the clocks in the sacred spaces confirmed and manifested this privileged role of the church as dispensers and controllers of the earthly time.

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Renaissance in San Miniato

During the centuries the Florentines expressed their piety through important artistic commissions for San Miniato. Today, in front of the main altar, in the middle of the central nave you can admire the little Renaissance Chapel of the Crucifix, commissioned by Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici and designed by Michelozzo in 1448.

Michelozzo, Chapel of the Crucifix, 1448.
Michelozzo, Chapel of the Crucifix, 1448, San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

San Miniato was also chosen as a burial place for the Cardinal of Portugal James of Lusitania, member of the Portuguese royal family, who died in Florence on 27 August 1459. The cardinal’s burial chapel is attached to the left nave of the basilica. The Chapel was designed by Brunelleschi’s pupil, Antonio Manetti, who shaped it on the examples of early Christian mausolea. James of Lusitania was commemorated with a funerary monument sculpted by Antonio Rosellino, while Antonio and Piero Pollaiolo painted the panel for the main altar representing Saint Eustache, Saint James and Saint Vincent, patrons of the royal house of Portugal, of the cardinal and of the cardinal’s titular church in Rome. The original painting is kept today at the Uffizi Gallery, while a modern copy it still present in the chapel. The floor of the chapel is decorated with inlay compositions, strongly inspired by Roman cosmatesque style from the twelfth century. Among the stones used for the floor composition, we can also find red porphyry, extremely rare and precious stone, used mainly by the kings and emperors. Here, porphyry underlines James’ royal pedigree and enhances the prestige of his burial place.

Antonio Rosellino, Funerary Monument of the Cardinal of Portugal.
Antonio Rosellino, Funerary Monument of James of Lusitania, the Cardinal of Portugal, 1466, San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

We leave the chapel not to disturb James’ eternal rest. Back in the church we can breathe the spiritual atmosphere of this unique place. Truly, San Miniato seems to exist in a different dimension. Here you can truly stop, take a break from your life and experience the immeasurable. San Miniato nurtures our spirits and uplifts our souls. It truly is one of the most precious places in Florence.

View on the Cathedral from San Miniato al Monte.
View on the Cathedral from inside of the Basilica.

If you want, every day at 6:30 pm the Oliventans from San Miniato sing vespers in Gregorian chants. It’s really worth joining them for a moment of prayer.

If you want to visit San Miniato on a private tour, contact me! I will be happy to organize your guided visit and show you many other treasures hidden in the church.

View on Florence from Monte alle Croci.
The view from the terrace of San Miniato al Monte.