I have always loved the Spanish chapel in the Santa Maria Novella Dominican convent. It is one of those places however that is rarely visited in Florence . I have always loved colour & busyness and maybe that is why I love it. I appreciate the organised space and the calm that pervades from Massaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci chapel from the early Renaissance period in the 1420’s, but I just dig the 1300’s Gothic love for the horror vaccui (filling up of space), the naturalistic elements of the landscape, attention to minute detail, the elegance of the fabric & the awesome hell scenes with the devils who are often in shades of fuscia and red –and the Spanish chapel offers all of this.
It is pretty as well as being a massive visual overview of Dominican theology & church hierarchical structure.
Andrea di Buonaiuto frescoed the chapter house in the 1360’s, paid for by the Guidaliotti’s, a cashed up Florentine family who wanted to be buried in there with sermons said when they were in Purgatory. It earns it’s current name as it was given to the Spanish entourage of the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Eleonara da Toledo, in the middle of the 1500’s.
All four walls are entirely frescoed & in fabulous condition. The wall opposite the entrance is where the cycle begins & is dedicated to Christ the saviour of mankind. Then comes the church militant & church triumphant with portraits of famous Florentines such as Dante, Boccaccio & Giotto, who mingle with the pilgrims and the Pope and the dogs of the Lord (a play on words of the Dominicans who are the Dominis canes or dogs / guardians of the faith). Then there is the Triumph of Christian Doctrine personified in Thomas of Aquinas, who is surrounded by the seven virtues, seven Liberal Arts & the seven Sacred Sciences. This scene underlines the Dominican’s intellectual role in the church. Finally the last wall shows scenes of St Peter the Martyr.
St Dominic, around at the same time as St Francis at the beginning of the 1200’s, had combatting heresy as his main aim. He was a very good preacher and soon gathered quite a following. He dispatched his followers to the cities in order to teach the true or orthodox view, as well as helping the poor. In order to be able to preach well and combat heretical views, the followers had to know theology in great depth and hence this particular order placed much emphasis on study and learning, which led to great libraries, schools & a principal role in the Inquisitions.
Symbolism, theology, beauty – the Spanish chapel has it all, so make room on your next jaunt to this side of the city.