Basilica di Santa Trinita and the Vallumbrosans

The second church I want to write about is the Basilica di Santa Trinita, on the Piazza di Santa Trinita, just across the Arno from St Mark’s.

A review of this church on TripAdvisor comments that the facade of this church looks like a bank. It’s hard to disagree – until you take a closer look at the doors.

The doors date from the seventeenth century, and depict Saints from the Vallumbrosan order. The order followed the Rule of St Benedict, and was founded in the early 11th century by St. John Gualbert.

Carved doors of Santa Trinita, C17th

Gualbert began in the religious life at San Miniato al Monte (also worth a visit!). He left after several years in a bid to found a community life as rigourous and penitential as that lived by hermits. It was this Benedictine community which founded Santa Trinita.

In front of the church, it’s also worth looking at the carving of the Trinity over the main door. This unusual depiction echoes the popular Pieta, but with God the Father, rather than Mary, holding the dead Christ.

The Holy Trinity, by Pietro Bernini and Giovanni Battista Caccini.

Once you step into the cool dimness of the church itself, you again find yourself back in time. Some gothic additions, common in other Florentine churches, were removed during restoration work. This revealed Romanesque features, particularly the crypt, which can be illuminated with a 50 cent donation.

The Sassetti Chapel, containing frescoes of the Life of St Francis, speaks to the perhaps surprising connection between the Franciscans and Vallumbrosans. Francesco Sassetti initially hoped to commission works relating to his name-saint in his family chapel, in the more prominent (Dominican) church of Santa Maria Novella. The Franciscan-Dominican rivalry put paid to this, so the fresco cycle was painted in the existing Chapel of St Francis in Santa Trinita.

The Bartolini Salimbeni Chapel, with its Life of the Virgin cycle, also relates to the Franciscan-Dominican rivalry. Depicting scenes from Mary’s childhood, it alludes to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This states that Mary was preserved from Original Sin in anticipation of her bearing Jesus. While the Dominican Thomas Aquinas denied this, the Franciscan John Duns Scotus argued in its favour. The Benedictines supported the Franciscans, and the Vallumbrosans were particularly concerned to maintain this position.

So, artistic masterpieces, a little-known monastic congregation, and a medieval doctrinal debate. What more could you want from a church which you’ll often have to yourself?

While you’re there, do also visit the Chapel of the Relic of St. John Gualbert, and spend some time in prayer.

Chris Dingwall-Jones is an ordinand at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He is on placement at St. Mark’s during August.

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