A detour through the cloisters

by Rebecca Bricker on September 20, 2013

I was on my way to get my dry cleaning the other day – cutting across the piazza in front of Florence’s 13th-century Santa Maria Novella church – when I noticed the front gate was open and NO ONE WAS IN LINE to buy a ticket. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the cleaners and I LOVE taking little detours here. When I veer down a side street or feel the pull of an open gate or door, I usually discover something incredible…

As I stepped inside Santa Maria Novella’s grand sanctuary, an air hammer started pounding on a shrouded construction project. Not exactly the religious experience I had hoped for. Then I noticed an open door to the cloister behind the church.

I’ve been to this church several times, but I’d never seen this door open before.

I made a beeline for the door, just in case a guard had left it open by mistake. I have a fantasy of getting locked inside a museum or library for the night. But what about a monastic chapel? My imagination was running a few steps ahead of me.

I wasn’t alone – a handful of visitors, speaking various languages, had found their way through the door and down the stairs to the secluded Chiostro Verde – the Green Cloister – which is part of the Santa Maria Novella Cloisters Museum.

I felt like I had stepped through a door to the Middle Ages. To the right was another open door – to the Spanish Chapel, the convent’s chapter house that became the meeting place of the Spanish followers of Eleonora of Toledo, the wife of Tuscan Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. The frescoes in the chapel are from the mid-14th century and pay homage to the work of the Dominican friars who founded Santa Maria Novella in 1279.

As I walked inside the chapel, it seemed like everyone was frozen in place, rooted to the spot where the wonder of the moment had struck each of them.

The cloister’s walkway led to adjoining chapels where embroidered vestments and altar cloths were on display.








Panels from the cloister’s refectory were in the process of being restored by two young artists, who amicably chatted with each other. Several of us gathered to watch their work. I thought about the original artists who had painted these panels – wondering what they had talked about as they painted centuries ago.

I stood at a glass case, riveted by the gaze of a reliquary bust – one of the 11,000 Virgins of Cologne, the label said – whose face was almost life-like. I kept waiting for her to blink. She won – I blinked first.

I was one of the last to leave the cloisters that afternoon. The guard was locking up as I came scurrying out in search of the exit. He pointed the way and smiled. I wondered if he knew about my fantasy.

The exit wasn’t near the entrance – but wouldn’t you know, it was just around the corner from the cleaners. :)



Jackie Lamothe September 20, 2013 at 4:06 am

Stayed at a hotel just across the way from SMN Church and it was like my own private sanctuary (don’t recall any lines in those days).
Thanks for the beautiful photos and vivid imagery:)

Thom September 20, 2013 at 7:20 am

When Joan and I were walking around Dublin she turned to me and asked, “Do you have to visit every church you pass?” My simple answer was “Yes” – but she won the tourist battle that day, and I only got her in one more “substantial” church.
Thanks for reminding me why I visit every church I pass – how beautiful and inspiring. Part of me remains jealous of your adventure.

Sarah McKee September 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm

How splendid! And what a treat to feel as if I’m along — that embroidery is really bas relief sculpture done with thread. Unimaginable today.

Pat September 28, 2013 at 5:20 am

Isn’t it amazing what those little detours can divulge especially in Europe.

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