Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella

Annexed to the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is a large frescoed chapter house that is one of the most impressive surviving testimonies of the 1360s in Florence. Erroneously named the “Spanish Chapel” because of its later use for prayer by Spanish colonists, the structure (built probably in the 1350s) in fact served as the chapter house for the Dominican friars of SMN. The chapter house also had an altar and a burial function for its patron Buonamico di Lapo Guidalotti, who paid the painter Andrea di Bonaiuto (Andrea di Firenze) to work on it from 1366-8.

spanish chapel, view to altar

Entry gate into spanish chapel, view to altar

The low vaulted space is entirely frescoed. The flat space of the large lunettes under the vault are not divided up in any way, but contain complex allegories, or in the case of the altar wall, a continuous narrative. The frescoes in the altar area are 16th-century; on the ground is the original patron’s tomb and other, later, marble tomb markers. The earlier scenes by Andrea di Firenze are: (1) altar wall, way to calvalry, crucifixion, descent into limbo; (2) left wall, the Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas; and (3) right wall, the triumph of the church or the way to salvation. On the back (entrance) wall are ruined scenes from the life of Saint Peter Martyr (he was also a Dominican). The vault contains, above the altar wall, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ above the back wall; above the side walls the vault shows the Pentecost and the Navicella. These two last vault sections are considered biblical precedents to the contemporary material presented on the lower walls.

Right wall: The triumph of the church

The overall theme of this space is salvation through Christ, and with the aid of the Dominicans. This is why, on the right wall, you see black-and-white clothed Dominicans preaching, instructing from books, and literally leading people by the hand through a torturous road that works upwards on the right hand side of the wall, towards heaven which is depicted as a gate at the top. Peter, holding his key to the gate, looks sternly at the new initiates to heaven with a face that one of my favourite professors reads as saying “You just BARELY made it.”

Across from this wall you have a summary of medieval, and particularly Dominican, education, with Saint Thomas Aquinas in the center demonstrating his Summa Teologica and crushing heretics at his feet. The scenes of crucifixion and resurrection, on the other hand, relate more to the chapel’s burial function and signify belief in the afterlife and hope of salvation for the patron.

Cloister view from entrance towards chapel

I think this is one of the most exciting frescoes in the city. Usually taught as evidence of a depressed era in the wake of the black plague of 1348, the paintings have a lot more to them. Numerous fascinating details show a wide range of facial types – images of “infidels” (non-Christians) make for particularly interesting caricatures. The bright, jewel-toned colour scheme is an appetizing and welcome break from the naturalism of 50 years earlier. The massive decorative banding that divides the scenes is worthy of study in itself. And the logic of its organization – surely coached by a Dominican advisor – is unchallengeable. Hardly a throwback to the era pre-Giotto, the Spanish Chapel is a masterpiece of its time.

Photos: The right wall is usually illustrated in textbooks but the other walls are not – for this reason I went over there recently and photographed everything properly. In the gallery below you can click on the thumbnails to open an 800 pixel wide image at 72 dpi.

spanish chapel, view to altar

Entry gate into spanish chapel, view to altar

View from right corner of chapel towards left side

Photo taken from left corner of room

Altar wall crucifixion

Left wall of Spanish Chapel: The triumph of st. Aquinas

Right wall: The triumph of the church

Vault frescoes

By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

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  • brenda

    Thanks for uploading these wonderful photos. They really helped me understand the spatial qualities of the chapel. (i’m writing a essay for my architecture course on Santa Maria Novella)

    =D

  • robertseviour

    I agree entirely with the page heading – Slow Art, and in fact I have been advocating this principle to any one who will listen for some time. I came to this idea as a result of the fatigue I always felt when going around a large exhibition. Now one room is plenty and I much prefer to analyse what I'm seeing in one picture rather than make a tally of the numbers of them that I have done little more than walk past.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks Robert. It'd be great to get this comment on one of my articles about Slow Art, like this one: http://www.turismo.intoscana.it/allthingstuscan
    Are you participating in Slow Art day today (April 17 2010)? There are cities around the world involved!

  • http://web.mac.com/john.walford/Site/John_Walford_Home_Page.html E. John Walford

    I enjoyed the materials assembled here, and commend you for them. As a Professor of Art History, also knowledgeable in Church History, I should point out though that it is the Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, not St. Augustine, as you state, that is the subject of one of the main frescoes in the “Spanish Chapel.” (Augustine lived long before the Dominican order came into being, whereas Aquinas was a Dominican priest).

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Dear Dr. Walford
    You are absolutely right, that is a really bad typo/slip – of course it’s Aquinas and not Augustine. I shall fix the text.
    It’s great to know that after all these years people are still finding and using this article (wouldn’t want there to also be a grave error in there, who knows what students have written based on that…)
    Alexandra

  • Squeak

    . . . and six months later the St Augustine blunder is still there!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    You are right, John, I had corrected one reference and missed another. Nonetheless, if you find a person’s blog, written in their spare time, to be useful enough to return to it six months later, a nicer tone of voice would be appreciated, for a typo is not a blunder.
    I am a professional writer and art historian, but I do this for my own pleasure and to help other people. I field comments and questions from mobile devices and don’t always have time or access to the internet in order to fix mistakes on the fly.

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  • Lesley Valdes

    Hello, I would like more information on the vault frescoes, as I am trying to write a poem on the ceiling fresco that specifically includes the 12 apostles in the boat with Christ. It made a tremendous impression on me when I first saw it several years ago and I went back into the chapel the same day and was delighted to find I was all alone! However, quite stupidly, I did not get any information about the fresco! I should like to have a better image, as close a possible of the boat, characters within, etc. If you know of any book or material about it, please inform. Also, I’ve now forgotten who painted these frescos, will retrace my steps on your blog. Thank you for the jpg, however and any other info.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Lesley,
    Everything I know about these frescoes and all of the photos are reproduced here.
    Alexandra