‘Haec est Porta Coeli’: inscribed upon a marble scroll ornament on the threshold of the Holy Door of the church of San Miniato al Monte is a line that affirms ‘this is the Gate of heaven’.
When we take our stand upon Piazzale Michelangelo, the Florence at our feet appears in all her magnificence. The city’s skyline is dominated by a panoply of works conceived by the architectural giants of Italy: the immensity of Brunelleschi’s Cupola and Giotto’s Campanile, the tall tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the low elongated mass of the magnificent basilica of Santa Croce. However, it is just five minutes uphill from the Piazzale Michelangelo where one of the finest jewels of Romanesque architecture in Italy lies nestled amongst the lush verdure of the Tuscan hills.
The church of San Miniato al Monte (ca. 1013 – ca. 1150) is a fine example of the Florentine Romanesque reaching its full maturity. With its beautiful façade inlaid with colourful, geometrical marbles and its decorative interior, San Miniato al Monte presents itself as one of the most harmonious pieces of Romanesque architecture. However, it is the story behind the conception of the church that adds to its majesty and wonder.
The tale of Minias speaks of the life of a Christian convert who travels to Florence from the exotic orient to live a life of solitude on Monte alle Croci as a hermit. Such a lifestyle choice led to him being denounced as a Christian by the Emperor Decius and ultimately, in AD250, Minias was martyred for his faith. Legend has it that the decapitated body of Minias picked up its head and flew over the River Arno to his hillside hermitage where he finally died. Over time the power of the myth led to the canonisation of Minias and over nine centuries later, in 1013, a church dedicated to the saint was erected on the site of his death.
Upon first seeing the great basilica one cannot help but notice the beautiful combination of white Carrara and green Prato marble that have been delicately inlaid on the façade. The upper order of the church dons an iridescent mosaic depicting the enthroned Christ giving benediction between the Madonna and St. Minias, which is painted on a gilded gold background. The mosaic is infused with life when the sun reflects off the vibrant blue, ochre and gold.
Dominating the view is the mosaic in the apse above the choir. Here is the image of the enthroned Christ giving benediction (1297), which was restored in 1491 by Alessio Baldovinetti. Around the colossal image of Christ we see St. Minias presenting him with a crown to his right and, to his left, the Virgin Mary. Christ sits in a verdant garden that is copious with exotic trees and fruits, and paradisal birds. Around Christ’s regal throne are the tetramorphic images of the Four Evangelists: St. Matthew (the man), St. Mark (the lion), St. Luke (the ox) and John (the eagle). The combination of rich colours and materials upon the expansive backdrop of gold is unparalleled. The glittering gold of the apse illuminates the basilica and its surroundings, as it did centuries ago, creating the desired ambience of divinity and flooding it with mysticism.
A wonder of faith, beauty and history, the San Miniato al Monte has been described as one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany and attracts countless travellers to awe-inspiring grandeur.