The stout guidebook I bought as a college student mentions Saint Minias in only one sentence. In less-than-perfectly-proofread English, we learn, “The Church (fig. 184) was built in the XI century on the old Oratory (erected by San Miniato the first Florentine Christian martyr), and is the most notable example of Florentine Romanesque architecture.”
(Note: although it sounds strange to me, I will refer to the man as St. Minias throughout, because in Florence the church is often called simply San Miniato rather than its full name San Miniato al Monte. Perhaps this will result in greater clarity, if only in my own mind.)
It’s not surprising that my little guidebook says less about St. Minias than about some other saints associated with Florence. Without doubt, more information is available about the construction of the basilica known as San Miniato al Monte, which began in 1013, than about the life of the saint for whom it is named, who died over 700 years before construction began. In fact, the main reason I know anything about this saint is that while I was a student, I met an art history professor who was writing a book about the construction of the church. I’ve spent a lot of time musing on (and in) the church itself over the years. Recently I began to wonder what can be known about the man for whom the church is named.
My limited search has revealed what might be expected regarding a person who lived so long ago: we don’t know much, and what we are told is impossible to verify according to today’s historical standards.
According to the stories passed down. Minias was an Armenian—either a merchant, a soldier, or a prince, depending on which story you hear. If a merchant, he came to Italy originally for trade. If a soldier, he came on command. If a prince, the account is that he “left his kingdom for the faith of Christ, to do penance and to be far away from his kingdom, [and] went over seas to gain pardon at Rome,” (Villani, 36) then moved to the area near Florence.
That he came from Armenia is undisputed, and the name Minias is still found among Armenians today. As an early Christian civilization, Armenia could certainly have provided the nurturing for a man whose faith would make him strong enough live the life we are told he lived. Whether merchant, a soldier, or a prince, most accounts agree that Minias’ faith eventually led him to live as a hermit in the woods near Florence. According to some, a small community of disciples developed around him, though this is debated.
|The wooded area behind the church where St. Minias is said to have lived as a hermit.|
according to some, brought before the emperor himself—and commanded to deny Christ and sacrifice to the Roman gods. When he refused, he “endured divers martyrdoms,” according to the Chroniche Fiorentine di Giovanni Villani. Or, as reported elsewhere in more detail, he was “thrown into a furnace, was lapidated, and was thrown to a lion or a panther at an amphitheater—from which he emerged unharmed.” Finally, as all accounts agree, he was beheaded.
An account of what happened after that, the one part of his story that remained in my memory from those student days, does not appear anywhere until around the time of the construction of the church in the eleventh century. When Bishop Ildebrando decided to build a new basilica, the building of which seems to have had significant political motivation, he needed a religious reason for doing it. The cult of St. Minias by that time had become somewhat neglected. Oratories dedicated to him dotted the landscape of Tuscany, but his story had apparently become a faint memory.
The bishop had a new account of his life and death (a passio) written, and this is the first time the most-remembered component of the story appears. In this new passio, the abbot Drogone, commissioned by Idebrando, wrote that after his decapitation, Minias rose up from death, picked up his head, crossed the Arno river (which had no bridge at that point in place or time), and was led by angels up the mountain to a site near the woods where he had lived. This intentional resurrection of the saint’s story, with a bit of elaboration, was successful. It reminded the people of their patron saint and inspired them to consent to the huge effort of building a new basilica.
The bishop’s new twist on Minias’ death also took care of a troubling part of the story. Evidence exists that Bishop Theodoric of Metz (France) had removed Minias’ relics from the oratory in 967 and taken them to Metz. Bishop Ildebrando, disputing the veracity of this story, claimed that the bones of Saint Minias had been found at the site in Florence, along with remains of some of his community, though evidence of this appears nowhere. The story provided the evidence needed, because in it, Drogone wrote that by taking his head, with angelic accompaniment, to the top of the mountain, “with clear and admirable intention he proved that he wished to await the Day of Judgment here” (Santing et al, 89).
Well, I suppose there was no way to argue with the story, to prove anything one way or another about the location or state of the bones. Bones of someone reportedly lie in the crypt, and the story of the cephalophoric ascent is told to this day.
Which brings me back to the professor I mentioned at the beginning. I was in the church with some of my college friends and was trying to read a Latin inscription. A kind, British voice very courteously interrupted and asked if we would like some help. This led to my meeting Professor Fred Gettings and to a conversation about his researching the church for a book he was writing about its symbolism. San Miniato is one of the medieval churches that has a full zodiac in the floor, and he explained to us how the zodiac fit with other symbols in the church, and how the sun coming in at certain times and on certain days was key to understanding how it all fit together. It was fascinating; our conversation led to his coming to lecture to our college group in exchange for some research grunt work we did for him.
|An article about this zodiac can be found here.|
The professor told me that the sun, Pisces, and Taurus, and the foot of Christ all play key parts in way the church was oriented and constructed. We might also say “decorated,” but the images and symbols are much more than decoration. Everything carries meaning beyond aesthetics, so I’m not sure what word to use.
The time of construction has meaning, too. For one thing, according to an inscription in the church, the zodiac was installed and the church was dedicated at sunrise on May 28, 1207. At sunrise during that time of year, the sun’s light from one window falls directly on the foot of Christ in the apse mosaic, and his foot points down to the crypt believed to contain the bones of St. Minias.
And the year is significant. Professor Gettings believed that one reason for the design of the church, was to combat a heresy that had been gaining ground in Italy at that time. Joachim de Fiore (1135-1202) had taught things that led some who followed him to de-emphasize the importance of Christ, scripture, and the church; and to overemphasize and distort the role of Holy Spirit in their teachings, leading eventually to a form of Gnosticism and sexual immorality.
Obviously, the church’s construction began before Joachim was born, and major parts of the church would have already been in place. But several of the smaller details that connect to the themes could easily have been added in the later years, as work continued up until the time of the dedication. It is also true that heresies are not born overnight, generally. Movements were in place before Joachim came along that influenced both his teaching and the distortions that his followers brought into play.
Gettings believed that the emphasis the church’s art gives to Christ’s supremacy and to the importance of the eucharist—a very physical act that shows belief that body and spirit are one—were a way of saying clearly through symbols to a largely illiterate people that the truth would be taught and practiced here in its fullness. (Though Joachim was never condemned, some of his teachings were condemned in 1215, just eight years after the zodiac was installed.)
Gettings pointed out that at the time of the dedication, the planets would have been grouped in such a way that five appeared within the constellation of Taurus, a very rare occurrence, which astronomers of that time would have been anticipating. The emphasis on Taurus would connect in medieval imagery with the bull’s symbolism of head, neck, and throat. This without doubt in Christian symbolism stood for Christ as the Word, and perhaps in this case also connected with the story of St. Minias. Taurus is also associated with sacrifice, which Christians came to connect to Christ, and perhaps in this case also to the martyred saint. The pisces image is used in several places in the church. In addition to being an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” it also symbolized resurrection in astrological symbolism.
Gettings’ theory about the church’s very structure combatting Gnosticism fits well with the complex history of the stories about St. Minias. The whole set of beliefs related to relics, which led to the cephalophoric addition to his story, are grounded in the Christian beliefs of the goodness of creation and the body, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the reality of resurrection. Though the inclusion of a zodiac may seem strange to us, one writer has pointed out that the symbol of the sun at the center of it places “emphasis on Christ as the Sun, giver of life and light . . . lord of the universe and time.” St. Minias proved with his willingness to die that he saw Jesus, and not Emperor Decius, as the true Lord. And he trusted him for eternal life.
Thebasilica and monastery website begins one of its pages with these words:
To believe in the God of Jesus Christ means to believe in a God who reveals himself in stories, and this gives a very strong quality to our experience of time. With this perspective, our memories take on a special significance, with which we can save up in the heart the traces of the Lord’s passing through our days, and the hope with which we train ourselves to look toward the future as the ultimate dwelling of our life in Christ.
San Miniato, the church, has had a special place in my memories ever since that day in spring of 1987. Learning more about its history and the stories of the man behind the church has been a blessing. Remembering Professor Gettings, who wrote that the cathedral possessed “an almost palpable feeling of ancient healing power,” has had special significance. In the course of writing this, I learned that Professor Gettings died a couple of years ago. He was a kind and brilliant man, and may perpetual light shine upon him.
General Sources without links:
Brand, Benjamin David. Holy Treasure and Sacred Song: Relic Cults and Their Liturgies in Medieval Tuscany. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Gettings, Fred. The Secret Zodiac: The Hidden Art of Medieval Astronomy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.
Santing, Catrien, Barbara Baert, and Anita Traninger, editors. Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Brill Publishers, 2013.
Villani, Giovanni. Villani’s Chronicle: Being Selections from the First Nine Books. Translated by Rose Self. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1907.
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