Marian Themes in the Façade of Santa Maria del Fiore

Author: Timothy Verdon

Marian Themes in the Façade of Santa Maria del Fiore

Timothy Verdon

The Virgin Mary comes alive across Italy

Arnolfo di Cambio's "moment", as man and as artist, culminated in his work for Santa Maria del Fiore. This name given the new cathedral begun by Arnolfo, although formalised only later, indicates a change that was part of the project from the start: the principal church of Florence would no longer be dedicated to Santa Reparata, an obscure early Christian martyr, but to Mary ever Virgin, the holy Mother of God, whose cultus strongly influenced theological reflection and popular devotion in Florence as elsewhere in late Medieval Europe.

The Marian dedication was given immediate expression in a programme of monumental marble statues begun by Arnolfo at the same time as the first segment of the Cathedral actually built, the western front, which the statues were meant to adorn: the grand, never to be finished principal façade finally dismantled in 1587. Important components of the programme in the Cathedral Museum and elsewhere make clear its emphatic Marian focus; these include, above all, Arnolfo's works for the three façade portals: the statue of Mary seated, crowned and holding the Christ Child, originally above the central door; and the high reliefs once over the other two doors, which show Mary just having given birth and Mary in death, mourned by St John the Evangelist (the main parts, respectively, of scenes representing The Nativity of Christ and The Dormition of the Virgin).In addition, on the inner facade a mosaic executed in the same years as the sculptures and still in place, The Coronation of the Virgin attributed to Gaddo Gaddi, extended the exterior Marian programme to the then as yet to be realised interior of the new Cathedral.

Taken together, these works suggest two fundamental aspects of late Medieval Marian iconography: on the one hand, the still strongly theological character of many images of the Mater Christi; and on the other, the narrative emphasis that, especially from the 13th century onwards, coloured all of Christian art. In fact, in the spiritual climate developed from St Bernard of Clairvaux to St Francis of Assisi, Mary, even as she continued to be seen as ideal "figure" of the Church, also became a human woman. That such simultaneous "double vision" of her role is possible, indeed necessary, was a given of patristic and medieval Marian thought: Augustine says that "Christ is truth, Christ is flesh; Christ is truth in Mary's mind and flesh in Mary's womb. But what is in the mind counts more than what is in the womb", and thus concludes with an astounding assertion that fully clarifies the fluid relationship between Mary and the Church: "Mary is holy, Mary is blessed, but the Church is better than the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is a part of the Church: a holy part, an excellent part, a part that surpasses all others in dignity, but still only one part in respect to the entire body. And if she is but a part of the whole, then surely the whole body is worth more than any single one of its parts".

It follows that everything we can affirm with regard to the Church, we both can and should affirm with regard to Mary who is part of the Church. What is more, according to the 12th-century theologian Blessed Isaac of Stella this equation works in the opposite sense as well: "In the divinely inspired Scriptures, whatever is said in general of the virgin mother Church should be understood in a personal sense as applicable to the virgin mother Mary", Isaac (echoing St Augustine) affirms, adding: "And what is said specifically of the virgin mother Mary should be applied to the virgin mother Church; and whatever is said of either one of the two can, without distinction, be said of the other".1

Arnolfo's regally hieratic Madonna and Child for the central portal, with a classical dignity that reflects the artist's years in Rome, is a superb example of this equation, projecting both the "maiestas Ecclesiae" typical of earlier Mary figures and the impression of being a "real person", a strong, vital young mother. The statue's vitreous paste eyes, which in the sunlight of Piazza del Duomo would have appeared to flash with intelligence as Mary, far above the men and women passing in the square, interacted with two other patrons of the Florentine cathedral shown, St Reparata and St Zenobius; indeed the "iconic" central figure must have been perceived as part of an animated sacra conversazione,if not, indeed, of a sacra rappresentazione. Since, moreover (as noted), these figures were themselves part of a programme including biographical elements — Mary shown just after giving birth to Christ and Mary on her death bed —, the new equilibrium between iconic and narrative elements emerged even more clearly, fruit of a process we might call the "humanisation of the symbol".

The final narrative element of the programme was the mosaic attributed to Gaddi, The Coronation of the Virgin, meant to be read both as continuing the story told on the outer facade — Mary, after her death, raised to share the glory of her Son — and as confirming the theological dimension of the main image of the sculptural programme, the Madonna with the Glass Eyes, whose majesty (on the outside of the building) was "explained" inside by the mosaic alluding to Mary's future elevation to the side of her glorified Son.

This mosaic, which should thus be considered the culminating element of a conceptually unified scheme, also suggests the likely sources of the programme. Done in the first decade of the 14th century, Gaddi's Coronation has no obvious prototypes in the monumental art of Florence but seems to draw inspiration from the use of the same subject in Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome, in the mosaic executed several years earlier by Jacopo Torriti, where moreover the theologically charged event — the elevation and crowning of Mary, figure of the Church — was similarly combined with detailed narration of her earthly life.

Such, indeed, was the desire to connect the glorious symbolic event with Mary's human life, in the Santa Maria Maggiore programme, that the very sequence of the vita Mariae had been manipulated, with the Dormition set between the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magiin order to get it right beneath the Coronation. In that way, just as later at Santa Maria del Fiore, the heavenly vision of glory immediately "followed" the scene showing Mary's falling asleep in the Lord.

Torriti's Coronation invites a further comparison: that with the apse mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a theological masterpiece of the mid 12th century in which we see a crowned Woman seated on a throne alongside Christ who embraces her. The texts exhibited by the Woman and by Christ identify him as the Bridegroom and her as the Bride of the Song of Songs, even if — in a Basilica dedicated to Mary — identification of the Woman with Christ's mother is also clearly implied. Let us note, however, that whereas this 12th-century programmer responsible for this
image was content to imply the identification of Woman embraced by Christ with Mary, 13th-century theologians wanted to make it explicit: in the 1290s (just before — or after — the Torriti mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore), Pietro Cavallini was commissioned to do a mosaic cycle depicting the Life of Mary immediately below the symbolic subject in Santa Maria in Trastevere, with the evident purpose, again, of "humanising the symbol" in light of new narrative taste. I believe it was this updating of the programme in Santa Maria in Trastevere, along with the programme in Santa Maria Maggiore that inspired the inner and outer façade iconography of Santa Maria del Fiore: an hypothesis that draws comfort from discernible bonds, at the level of patronage with Cavallini's mosaics commissioned Cardinal Bertoldo Stefaneschi and Torriti's by the Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV. For, as everyone knows, the projected cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, was morally and economically supported by Boniface who had been elevated to the dignity of cardinal priest by Nicholas IV and was related to Stefaneschi.

Beginning with these Roman works, it is moreover possible to grasp connections in Marian thought and iconography of the later Middle Ages which are basic to understanding the facade of Santa Maria del Fiore. Interesting above all, in my view, are the internal dynamics of evolution from theology to narrative, which cannot be entirely explained in terms of the affective spirituality promoted by the Franciscans and others at the time, but as I sought to do in a recent study of Mary in European Art2—has to be brought back to solid scriptural and theological bases. Indeed, what most attracts us in the façade is a process of "humanisation" that in no way compromises but, on the contrary, reinforces the symbolic dimension, simultaneously ascribing dignity to that which is human and human vitality to that which is Divine.

What are the sources this extraordinary synthesis?

Mary's special election was symbolized, from the 11th century onwards, through the metaphor of regal status dear to a medieval Europe fascinated by the idea of parallelism between this world and the next. It is no accident that, above the main portal of Reims Cathedral — the church in which ancient tradition required that the kings of France be consecrated — we find a Coronation of the Virgin that visually legitimizes the sacral character of the monarch. Even far from the courts of northern Europe, though —in free Italian republics like Siena and Florence — the poetry of royal status conditioned Marian iconography: the stories told in the central column of Duccio's rose window in Siena cathedral, done in the 1280s, are the Dormition, Assumption and Coronation, and the first work commissioned for the interior of the rising cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, was (as noted) a mosaic depicting Mary's coronation. One hundred thirty years later, as the church finally neared completion, the subject chosen for the enormous stained glass window above the main altar designed by Donatello was again the Coronation of the Virgin.

A writer of the 12th century, Bishop Amadeus of Lausanne, a pupil of St Bernard of Clairvaux, helps us savor this Marian application of the regal metaphor: "The Holy Virgin Mary was assumed into Heaven", he says, "but her admirable name shone forth in all the earth independently of this singular event: her immortal glory was everywhere irradiated even before she was lifted above the heavens [...]. She dwelt in the sublime palace of holiness, enjoying divine favor in the greatest possible abundance, and she, who in wealth of grace surpassed all other creatures, in turn showered grace to slake the thirst of ordinary believers".3

To be queen, though, often further implied being bride,as with Byzantine and Holy Roman empresses shown receiving their crowns from Christ thanks to the bond with their imperial husbands. The biblical texts that the liturgy associates with Mary — the Old Testament psalms employed to suggest her relationship to Christ — in fact link her dignity as queen with that which she has as figure of the Church (Sponsa Christi)and thus bride:

"Listen, daughter, pay heed, bend your ear: forget your nation and ancestral home, for the king will be pleased with your beauty. He is your master, bow down to him. Emissaries from Tyre bearing gifts solicit your favor, the wealthiest nations with jewels set in gold. Dressed in brocades the king's daughter is led into the king, with bridesmaids in her train. Her ladies-in-waiting follow and enter the king's palace amid general rejoicing (Ps 45[44]:11-16).

In visual terms, this bridal dimension gives special meaning to the sumptuous garments in which Mary is shown as queen. The crown and gem-encrusted robes of Arnolfo's Madonna with the Glass Eyes,for example, evoke the "bride adorned with jewels" of the old Testament (cf. Is 61:10) — the young woman "dressed in brocades" for presentation to the king on her wedding day. It is again Amadeus of Lausanne who specifies that: "The bride rich with spiritual jewels was Mary, mother of the one Husband and font of all sweetness, delight of the spiritual gardens and the spring from which flow the living, life-giving waters that descend from the heavenly Lebanon [...]. As this Virgin of virgins was assumed into Heaven, the prophecy was fulfilled in which the Psalmist says to the Lord: 'The queen stands at your right in cloth-of-gold, in brocades and embroidered garments' (Ps45 [44]:10)".4

The presentation of Mary in regal and bridal terms was especially insistent in the ancient imperial capital, Rome. In the first grand Marian program realized in the West, the mosaic decoration of the "arch of triumph" in the Roman Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (a 4th-century Basilica enlarged by Sixtus III between 432 and 440), we find the Virgin "in cloth-of-gold, in brocades and embroidered garments": an immediate iconographic response to the solemn declaration of the Council of Ephesus a year earlier, in 431, which gave Mary the title "Mother of God". The collective nature of her royal condition is underlined here by the dedicatory inscription on the mosaic-clad arch, "Xistus episcopus plebi Dei" ("Bishop Sixtus [had this made] for the people of God"): a phrase that suggests how such images were read, with Mary conceived not primarily as an individual but as a collective figure of the God's people: the Domina Ecclesia or "Lady Church".

The most emphatic visualization of the high dignity reserved to the Church and of the splendor of her royal nuptials with the "King of kings" is the already mentioned monumental apse mosaic in another Roman church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, showing Christ and Mary seated on the same throne, so close that their bodies in gold, gem-embroidered robes actually touch, and Christ can put his right arm around the shoulders of the Lady, who here already wears a crown.5 Executed in the mid 12th century, in the thick of the Popes' struggle to defend Church autonomy from the interference of the Germanic emperors, the mosaic intentionally evokes early Christian elements of form and content in order to suggest uninterrupted continuity between the formative centuries of Roman Church life — the waning centuries of the Empire — and the medieval present.

Thus (as at Santa Maria Maggiore) even though the woman represented is obviously Mary — we are after all in a church dedicated to her —, she is above all the "Lady Church", young and splendidly attired for her eternal nuptials. Christ bears a book with the invitation to his "chosen one" to herself become his throne —"Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum" , and the "chosen one" (the Church) displays a scroll on which we read words drawn from the Canticle of Canticles: "Laeva eius sub capite meo, et dextera illius amplexabitur me". "His left arm is under my head, his right embraces me" (Cant 2:6; cf. 8:3). Seen in the curvature of the apse, above the altar on which the Eucharist makes present the Bridegroom's "passion" for his Bride and the gift of his body, this explicit statement of a spousal vocation, and this way of conceiving believers' future blessedness as an embrace, reveal unexpected humanity: a personalist poetic anticipating the new, affective spirituality of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The relationship of this image to the great Old Testament love poem, the "Canticle of Solomon" or "Canticle of Canticles", is extremely significant. Rabbinical and Christian tradition alike unanimously interpreted the Canticle's erotic subject matter in mystical terms, and the Fathers of the Church identified the male protagonist of the text, called "the bridegroom", as Christ, and the female protagonist, "the bride", as the Church. An English miniature more or less contemporary with the Santa Maria in Trastevere mosaic shows — in an arrangement similar to that of the Roman work — the Canticle's putative author, King Solomon, and his beloved wife side by side in royal robes, while the textual gloss identifies the woman speaking to the king as "vox Ecclesiae", the voice of the Church, thus inviting us to read the poem's intimate dialogue between a bride and her bridegroom in terms of the love relationship between Christians and their Lord. We have only to cite the startling opening verses of the Canticle, written beneath the miniature in the English manuscript, to grasp the emotional force of this interpretation, in which it is the Church herself who says to Christ: "Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth, for your caresses are sweeter than wine! The fragrance of your perfume is inebriating, your name is fragrant unguent and that is why the maidens love you. Draw me in your footsteps, let us run! The king has brought me into his chambers. We shall praise your love above wine; how right it is to love you" (Cant 1:1-4).

We saw that a similar iconographical scheme was used again at Rome, in the apse mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore executed between 1291-1296 to a design by Jacopo Torriti, where however Mary — seated on Christ's throne — is shown in the act of receiving the crown from him. This image is situated above a smaller one depicting Mary's death, and thus represents not only the love between "bride" and "bridegroom" but also the moving reunion of a mother with her Son in Heaven;6 above all it represents the final goal of every woman and man, the heavenly vocation of our human flesh in which Christ was born. An inscription set between the representation of Mary's death and the image of her beside Christ on the throne in fact clarifies that "mother" and "bride" are one and the same: "Maria virgo assumpta est ad ethereum thalamum in quo rex regum stellato sedet solio. Exaltata est sancta Dei genitrix super choros angelorum ad celestia regna" —"The Virgin Mary has been assumed into the celestial bridal chamber at whose starry threshold sits the King of kings; the holy mother of God has been lifted above the angelic choirs to Heaven's realm". And Christ, who with his right hand crowns Mary, with his left displays an open book with the same text we noted in Santa Maria in Trastevere: "Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum" —"Come, my chosen one, and I will set my throne in you".

That the "Roman" way of seeing Mary as both institutional figure and woman might colour her depiction in the early iconography of Santa Maria del Fiore is, as already suggested, not surprising. The Bishop who presided over the birth of the new Florence cathedral, Francesco Monaldeschi, came to Florence from Orvieto where he had just launched a similar project, the Duomo of that city, formally considered planned "ad instar" —on the model — of Santa Maria Maggiore. And Boniface VIII, official "promoter" of the Florentine project, while the most institutionally minded of the late Medieval popes, was also a man of own his time, brought to real power by the first Franciscan to become Pope, Girolamo Masci, Nicholas IV.


1 Theological reflection on Mary is too copious to be adequately presented here, but an excellent recent source is S. de Flores and S. Meo (editors), Nuovo dizionario di mariologia,Milan 1986. In addition see G. Raschini, Dizionario di mariologia,Rome 1961; Etudes sur la sainte Vierge, ed. H. du Manoir, 8 vols., Paris 1949-1971; A. Tondini, Le encicliche mariane, Rome 1950; Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus,1974; John Paul II's Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, 1987. Cf. also R. Cantalamessa, Maria. Uno specchio per la Chiesa,Milan 1989; G. Ravasi, L'albero di Maria, Cinisello Balsamo 1993.

2 Nuovo Dizionario di mariologia,cit. at the voice "Dio Padre", pp. 430-431.

3 Amedeo di Losanna, Homily 7. Cf. Sources Chretiennes,Paris, from 1942, vol. 72, pp. 188-200.


5 V. Tiberia, I mosaici del XII secolo e di Pietro Cavallini in Santa Maria in Trastevere,Perugia 1966; R. Krautheimer, Rome: Profile of a City 312-1308, Princeton 1980, pp. 163-164; T. Verdon, L'arte sacra in Italia,Milan 2001, pp. 74-75; idem., "Il fiore di Maria. Teologia ed iconografia in Santa Maria del Fiore", in E. Neri Lusanna (curatrice), Arnolfo alle origini del Rinascimento (catalogo della mostra, Firenze, Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, 21 December, 2005-21 April, 2006, pp.99-108.

6 T. Verdon, L'arte sacra, cit. (above, n. 5), pp. 74-75; idem., "Il fiore di Maria", passim.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 July 2009, page 6

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