Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Florence Italy

Sunset San Mineato
Basilica of San Miniato al Monte
Late afternoon. Light from the western sun strikes the facade of the Basilica of San Miniato high above Florence. The clock moves steadily toward 5:30 PM. Light reflected from the 13th Century windows shimmers against intricately-patterned floors in the nave of the church. A soft wind breathes in from the entrance to the church and brushes past Taddeo Gaddi’s 14th Century frescoes. The breeze finds its way to a window in the sacristy, where it leaves the interior and fans out across the Monumental Cemetery.

This is the Basilica of San Mineato al Monte. Legend has it that Saint Mineas was the first christian martyr in Florence, where he was beheaded for his faith. According to the miraculous story, he picked up his head, placed it again on his neck and climbed back to his hermitage in a cave above the city. This Mount of the Cross, as it is now called, became the chosen site for a basilica to house the bones of sainted Mineas.

Gregorian Chant at Evening Vespers
Benedictine monks were intimately involved in the basilica construction, after the first stones were laid in 1018 A.D. In 1373, long after the church was completed, responsibility for care and upkeep of the basilica fell into the hands of the Olivetan order.

The crypt from 1063 contains seven aisles and more than thirty-five columns. When Taddeo Gaddi was commissioned in the 14th Century to decorate the interior of the crypt, he covered all the columns in gold leaf. None of that work remains today. However, it is still a beautiful space, reverent in both structure and atmosphere.

The Crypt San Miniato al Monte Florence Italy
Crypts in the Floor of the Nave
During the evening vespers, which begin at 5:30 PM during the summer, Cistercian monks who now care for the basilica slowly enter the crypt. A few worshipers, along with a few curious visitors, come in and sit on wooden pews or the deep marble steps at the rear of the crypt. They begin to sing a Gregorian chant to the intonations of a monk.

I have had many clients on my small group tours of Tuscany complain, "Not another bloody church!" Even those who come so skeptical cannot help but be moved by the beauty and the sense of history, as the textured voices of monks fill the crypt, rise to the nave above and echo against the mosaic of Christ over the main altar.

Summer afternoon light San Miniato
1000-Year-Old Floor Reflects Summer Evening Light
Time slows. Candles flicker in the far corners of the crypt. I enjoy walking around the basilica when Vespers are being chanted. The reflection of light from the 1000-year-old floor shimmers with a blue sheen. Markers of those buried beneath the floor of the nave are stark reminders that time is fleeting. No one ever fails to be deeply moved by such a place and such a service. I cannot recommend any evening activity in Florence more than this.

Candlelight in the Crypt of San Miniato
Candlelight in the Crypt of San Miniato
If you go, you are advised to call ahead (055.234.2731) to confirm times for the Vespers service at the basilica. The climb to San Mineato al Monte from the river level of the city is strenuous. Unless you are in very good health, I suggest using either a city bus or a private taxi. The walk back down to the city after the service is easy and enjoyable with spectacular views over the ancient center.

Mark Gordon Smith is a tour guide and travel author who has written three books about Italy. He speaks Italian, French, German and English. Learn about his small group tours at

1 comment:

  1. It looks like a stunning place. Thanks for sharing about it!