Saturday, November 1, 2008

Noble Joseph

A couple of days ago - last Thursday, to be exact - I spent the afternoon in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, a few blocks to the west of the city center. It's among the oldest and most beautiful churches in a city full of old and beautiful churches. The facade is particularly satisfying, and that alone helps to set it somewhat apart from the competition, so to speak. The churches of the Santa Maria del Fiore (that is, the Duomo), Santa Croce, and San Lorenzo are, as it were, let down by their facades. Those of the first two were only put up centuries after the buildings were erected and say more about the architectural fashion of the nineteenth century than they do about what lies behind them, within the buildings themselves; San Lorenzo, famously, remains without a facade, half a millennium after its construction. Santa Maria Novella's is in an uncluttered, Romanesque style, a style to which I am particularly partial, in white marble, with its designs marked out in green and occasionally pink marble, and is fronted by a large piazza that allows the visitor plenty of space from which to appreciate it.

Here are images of the churches I've mentioned, so that you can see for yourselves what I'm going on about:

The basic ground plan of the church is cruciform. The main body of the church makes up the long vertical of the cross, from which two short arms extend near the top, which in this case is at the northern end of the building. Like all of these great churches, the interior is decorated in a variety of artistic styles, reflecting the evolving (or some might say devolving) tastes of the centuries over which it was completed. This is especially true of the chapels that line the walls. It can take hours, if not days, to work your way around a building like this, which is crammed with art (admittedly, of varying quality) from floor to ceiling. I began at the southernmost point of the cross, the entrance, and worked my way around to my left. I came in particular for the enormous frescoes cycles behind the altar, which are among the greatest works by Domenico Ghirlandaio (pronounced Geer-lon-DYE-o), the man from whom Michelangelo learned the art of painting on fresh plaster walls. They did not disappoint. Facing the huge altar (which is itself a marvel of varicolored marble), on the left, are panels depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary; on the right, scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, patron of the city. There isn't time for me to go on about the power and charm of these images. I've included a very small detail, of a beaming nursemaid holding the newborn Virgin Mary in her arms, on my flickr page, just to give you a taste.

Proceeding on from the frescoes, I climbed up a small flight of 14 steps to the Rucellai Chapel, named for the family that had it built and decorated, in what would be the arm of the cross to which Christ's left hand was nailed - in this building, the one pointing east. Descending from the chapel, on the southern wall of that arm of the cross, is a white marble monument, maybe 10 feet tall, in which is displayed an inexpertly painted image of an obviously Byzantine hierarch. His vestments - a blue episcopal sakkos and white and gold omophorion - give him away. He's bare-headed - in fact, bald - without a halo, and has a full white beard coming to a point halfway down his chest. Two Giottoesque angels hover behind him, holding out what looks like a red cloak. His blue sakkos is shortsleeved and his lower arms are covered in darker blue. He is holding what is presumably a Gospel book, closed and decorated with a gold cross, and is smiling. I could see no identifying inscription on the image itself. In the white marble beneath it are carved two more angels, holding along a carved banner on which is inscripted, in black, a long text, almost entirely in Latin. The last line is in Greek, and reads, in translation: + JOSEPH, ARCHBISHOP OF CONSTANTINOPLE, NEW ROME AND ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH, YEAR 1439.

I have gone into some detail to describe the monument because Santa Maria Novella is one of those churches which does not allow the taking of photos or videos, and my courage of a couple of days earlier (see previous post) had abandoned me. As I could find no clearer images on the internet, I've include on my flickr page ( photos of photos which appear in the official guide book, one of the general setting and one of the monument itself. Sorry: the quality wasn't great to begin with.

Now the question is: why is a Patriarch of Constantinople entombed in the wall of a Roman Catholic church in Florence, Italy? For the answer to that, stay tuned.

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