Street shrines

The history behind Florence’s tabernacles

Lettie Heywood
February 24, 2011

It is easy to forget while walking through the streets of Florence that it is fundamentally a secular state. Glance up and it is likely that you will chance upon one of the 1,200 tabernacles that adorn even the most decrepit and mundane of buildings; these sometimes primitive pieces of art that dot the city, often behind a gauzy veil of dirty glass, are a testament to the once fervent religious nature and atmosphere of the town. They are a constant reminder that although the origins of the city are pre-Christian, Florence was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The earliest example of western street art, tabernacles in Florence are today often surrounded by modern-day graffiti, a poignant and relentless reminder of the evolution (or perhaps devolution) of the western conception of art.


 A closer look at the history of the tabernacle reflects the history of Florence. Over time, adaptation of Roman art and architecture, first simply the materials and then the styles, is reflected in the tabernacle. Thus the city's street shrines are relics not only of medieval and renaissance Christian devotion but also of the ancient Roman city. From its inception, small pagan temples venerating the gods decorated the streets for the purpose of procuring the gods' protection and favour for its citizens. After Constantine's conversion to Christianity, images of saints and the holy family replaced those of pagan deities. In the 1300s, as cities, towns and villages claimed patron saints, Florence claimed the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist as its patron saints, and they are featured prominently in the city's tabernacles, both old and new: a contemporary tabernacle near via delle Terme depicts the baptism of Christ.


In the thirteenth century, tabernacles played a part in the war against heresy. The unorthodox ideas of the Cathars and Waldensians dangerously challenged Catholic doctrine. The omnipresent images in tabernacles-on houses, shops and street corners-served to promote devoutness as a constant reminder of ‘truth' as decreed by the Catholic Church.


In 1348, the year the Black Death reached Florence, the Christian tabernacles functioned much as the Roman street-side niches did: as a talisman, in this case against disease and death. Lighting candles, writing prayers and putting offerings before the images, the city's populace sought to procure the protection of the saints to ward off the plague.


Tabernacles tell the story of the city's social strata, as well. For example, whereas the city's wealthy families built its cathedrals and paid for the decoration, in frescoes and sculptures, of grand chapels bearing their names, middle-class families likewise commissioned the majority of tabernacles, often putting the family name firmly on the city's map. Consider the city's most famous and grandest demonstration of the tabernacle, Orsammichele, the market-turned-church belonging to the guilds of Florence. Outside, large niches with sculptures by the city's great artists-among them, Donatello's St. George and St. Mark, Ghiberti's John the Baptist and Verrocio's powerful Doubting Thomas-reflect the competitive spirit of the guilds. Inside, Andrea Orcagna created a large, ornately decorated marble tabernacle to enshrine a fresco of the Madonna.

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