Monday, May 12, 2008

The Spanish Chapel and a Snapshot of Medieval Knowledge

A TravelMarx Diagram of a Fresco in the Spanish Chapel
Spanish Chapel Fresco

The other day we went back to Santa Maria Novella to visit the Spanish Chapel. You get to the chapel by entering the museum part of the church to the left of the main façade. It is a separate ticket from the ticket for entering the main church. (Welcome to the typical Florence tourist church. Take heart, ticket sales support restoration.)

The Dominican chapterhouse is where the order met to discuss the issues of the day or to pray. It was typically a semi-private space reserved for just the order. The Spanish Chapel is so called because Cosimo I “assigned” the chapel to his wife Eleonora di Toledo and her Spanish retinue so they could have a place of their own and, the name stuck. The chapel was frescoed by Andrea Bonaiuti (called Andrea da Firenze or translated literally Andrea ‘good help’) between 1365 and 1367.

The subject matter of the chapel is definitely about hammering home the finer points of the Dominican world view for those in the know, while for others, the frescoes are simply pretty, colorful scenes. One wall in particular struck our fancy and that’s the wall with the fresco called The Triumph of Saint Thomas and the Allegory of Sciences – it’s the wall on the left upon entering the chapel. The fresco is so orderly that you wonder what’s going on. After discussing the fresco on one tour with the British Institute and then talking with an art guide on another visit we were able to put together a reasonable interpretation of the fresco.

Why is this interesting? It’s interesting because it is a late medieval, early Renaissance snapshot of what the Dominicans thought the world of knowledge looked like, a map so to speak. Maps like this are interesting because they often condense many concepts in an artful way and call out to be deciphered.

The Dominicans were important in bringing systematic (as they knew it back then) education to bear on problems of the day. The rise of the religious orders (mostly in the 1200s) like the Dominicans and the Franciscans largely mirrored the influx of people from the country into medieval cities (especially in Italy). The influx of people brought physical and spiritual problems that the mendicant orders administered to. St. Thomas Aquinas is a key figure in the Dominican Order and the Catholic Church. His work Summa Theologica, completed about 100 years before the chapel was frescoed, was a compilation of all the theological teaching known at the time, so who else to be sitting on the throne in the fresco.

Santa Maria Novella Facade Detail

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