Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Little Flower: The Duomo


The 45’ high walls of Muslim Jerusalem were insufficient to repel the attacking Crusaders who on 15 July 1099 reclaimed Jerusalem for Christian Rome of the East, the Pope, and the allied powers of Europe.  At the head of a 2,500 strong Florentine contingent, Pazzino de’Pazz (eponymous founder of the Pazzi dynasty), first to breech the wall and raise the flag of Christendom.  Victory achieved, Pazzino returned to Florence with three flint shards from the Holy Sepulchre which are each year used on Holy Saturday to spark a light for Christ’s return on Easter morning, a millennial tradition now celebrated in the Piazza del Duomo.

The Duomo, Altar

The Duomo Altar. credit: M. Curtis

Easter Sunday, 26 April 1478, 30,000 filled to capacity the Duomo, the “Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore”.  In attendance, the brothers Medici, Giuliano and Lorenzo, agents of the Pope Sixtus IV, leaders of the Pazzi dynasty, their henchmen and attending monks.  Conditions were cordial, as is proper on Easter morning, though tense because Lorenzo had recently refused a loan to Sixtus IV, and for other complicating matters that involved rival Dukes, rival towns, and the desperate worldly interests of Pope Sixtus.  That morning, Lorenzo was suffering a cold and had wrapped a thick wool scarf round his neck, a happy accident which repelled the many long knives of the Pazzi and others of the Pope’s men.  So many struck Giuliano that he died before hitting the floor.

In 1478 Shakespeare had not yet composed Julius Caesar (1599), yet Plutarch’s “Life of Caesar” was printed in 1470, so the Pazzi conspirators might have anticipated events.  Lorenzo escaped to his villa, there delivered an Antony-like address urging Florentines not to take law and justice into their hands, et cetera.  By day’s end, 30 of the Pazzi conspirators and several innocents were murdered, some by being thrown by rope naked from windows to snap at the neck.  Jacopo de’ Pazzi, patriarch, was soon after captured, stripped, tortured, hanged, his head used as a football.  After several months, another of the conspirators, Baroncelli, in chains and Turkish costume was returned to Florence, gift of Sultan Mehmed II to Lorenzo.  Baroncelli too was hanged.*  In total, over 80 were executed.  The offending pope, Sixtus IV, excommunicated Lorenzo.  Lorenzo’s second son, Giovanni, in 1513 became Pope Leo X.  In all there were four Medici popes.  The Pazzi not executed were exiled from Florence.

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Duomo Facade 1

The Duomo Facade. credit: M. Curtis


You might like to know that the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, “Saint Mary of the Little Flower”, was, in the year of its consecration, 1436, the largest church in Christendom.  Many great artists and architects contributed to the cathedral’s construction.  First, the remarkable sculptor-architect Arnolfo di Cambio; Giotto was early the master builder; Andrea Pisano, another; though most know only of Filippo Brunelleschi because he designed the dome, second largest in the world (after the Pantheon’s dome), a model of domes for cathedrals and national capitals the world round, including our own.  The dome tops at 375’, is 150’ wide, and weighs 37,000 tons (including four million bricks and other materials that required Brunelleschi to invent new lifting machines).  The lantern (the light window atop the dome) was completed in 1461 by the sculptor-architect Michelozzo.

Gates of Paradise Brunaleschi Self Portrait

Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s Self-Portrait. credit: M. Curtis

The full campus of the Duomo includes the Cathedral, Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower), the Baptistry of Saint John, and the Piazza del Duomo.  Statuary on the Campanile by the family Pisano is quite fine, though most look past those works for the masterpieces of the Baptistry doors.  The first of the doors, by Andrea Pisano, are quite like the statuary of the Campanile, and the second door, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, is much alike Pisano’s though, well, superior in conception and execution.  The third of the doors, also by Ghiberti, is unprecedented, a hybrid statue-picture true in perspective, sweeping in cinematic scope, telling in composition and charming in detail.  Really, it must be seen.  If you cannot be in Florence to see Ghiberti’s doors, the Gates of Paradise, you might visit Randolph Rogers’ doors that front the United States Capitol building, the Columbus Doors, doors that challenge, doors that the patriotic few consider superior.

The Cathedral was once adorned with many statues and pictures (still is), some great, some, like Michelangelo’s Pietà (that he himself smashed to pieces) and Donatello’s Mary Magdalena were removed to the Opera del Duomo when the cathedral received its new Gothic Revival facing (1887).  The old façade, “Giotto’s façade”, has been reconstructed in the Opera with many statues in their correct, original placements.  In all, some 750 works-of-art (including statues by Bandinelli and Andrea della Robia) were relocated to the Opera, leaving the great nave of the Cathedral looking rather empty.  Though, if your eye should search for some reward in the vast empty walls of the Cathedral, direct your gaze upwards to the inner dome where you will be lift into the Vasari–Zuccari masterpiece, The Last Judgment, a catechesis on Revelation.


The Duomo, Dome

The Duomo Dome. credit: M. Curtis


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Recently at evening Mass in Florene’s Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Little Flower I witnessed the ordination of six priests.  There were perhaps 3,000 others at the Mass, family, friends, well-wishers and the typical faithful who were blessed to offer witness.  The service was long, some two hours of the entertaining Novus Ordo intermixed with the two millennia ritual of the extraordinary Traditional Rite.

Duomo Ordination Ceremony

The Duomo, Ordination Ceremony. credit: M. Curtis

As likely you know, Christ’s Twelve Apostles were the first priests, bishops in an unbroken line of apostolic succession that began at the Last Supper.  You will remember the Last Supper, the Passover meal when Jesus transubstantiated bread and wine into His body and blood, instructing the Apostles in the form of the rite, its words and actions that they too would have power of transubstantiation, and by this power would be priests of His Church on Earth.  The multiple evidence of the bread, the Eucharist (host) becoming on the altar flesh of the heart, and the wine a blood of the AB type (as in the Shroud of Turin) is now undeniable.  “This is My body; this is My blood,” Christ said, “Do this in memory of me.

Beneath the Duomo’s dome a procession of ministers in order, a deacon holding aloft the Gospels is followed by the candidates, priests, bishops, and on this evening, the cardinal.  Then a settling into the liturgy of the Word after which a calling of the candidates who emerge from the congregation, stand before the bishop and announce, “Present.”  The presiding bishop then makes inquiry of suitability and preparation of each Candidate who if worthy becomes Elect, if affirmative, a rousing response from the cheerful congregation.  Next the Homily which concludes with the solemn expectations of priesthood, its duties and responsibilities, and then a calling forth where the eager candidate is asked if he is willing to sacrifice, if so, the response “I am, with the help of God.


The Duomo, DAnte

Dante, Domenico di Michelino, the Duomo Florence.


The Elect and the bishop fold hands; the bishop calls the congregation to prayer, the saints to intercession; the Elect prostrates himself; the congregation prays; the Elect offers himself to the Lord; the bishop concludes the litany with a prayer.  As it was in the first days of the Church of Christ (see Acts 6:6), the bishop lays hands on head, silent prays, then each attending priest in silent prayer lays hands on the Elect … this, the ritual of Ordination, a gift of the Holy Spirit.  The newly ordained priests hold their hands aloft, the bishop prays the Consecration, and in assent the assembly responds, “Amen.

The Duomo, Front Doors

The Duomo Cathedral, Front Center Door. credit: M. Curtis

In succession, each of the ordained is vested in the priest’s robes, his hands are anointed upon the words, “May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God,” humble servant now of the people, he is ordained to offer sacraments.  The bread and wine are brought to him and the bishop speaks, “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him.  Know what you are doing, imitate the mystery you celebrate, model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”  The new priests perform the miracle of transubstantiation and the congregation approaches to accept into themselves Christ in the Eucharist.

There was more ceremony, hymns, acclaim, and the concluding procession beneath the Last Judgment pictured by Vasari on Brunelleschi’s dome, which few noticed, most eyes being fixed on the red robed cardinal (red, an eye magnet, first color recognized by we men) who seemed too old to walk the long space of the Duomo.  A wonder.  I lingered for a while to consider Domenico di Michelino’s Dante Before the City of Florence, a picture which intermingles Dante’s vision of the damned descending to Hell, the elect ascending to Heaven, with Florence, its majesty, defensive walls, and flags.  Dante, political exile from Florence, is pictured large, holding his book, The Divine Comedy; at picture’s bottom is inscribed, “Who sang of Heaven, and of the regions twain, / Midway and in the abyss, where souls are judged, / Surveying all in spirit, he is here, / Dante, our master-poet…

Rejoining the crowd that had reassembled outside in the Piazza del Duomo, new priests were congratulated by friends, hugged and kissed by family, there were pretty girls looking on, old men who had seen all before, there were Florentines fashionable, as Florentines are, there were tourist passersby unaware of the recent, extraordinary event, each with her bag, his ice-cream, each inquiring of the other which attraction to next see, the hopeful shopkeepers looked on and the maitre d’s offered tables.  I noticed one old priest ambling away, soon lost in the crowds of Florence.

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The Duomo, Piazza del Duomo

The Duomo Cathedral and Baptistry. credit: M. Curtis


If you visit Florence some Holy Saturday, you might like to take a table at a restaurant, if possible, on a second-floor balcony overlooking the Piazza del Duomo where you will witness the lighting ceremony initiated by the Pazzi, codified in its present form by the Medici pope, Leo X … a papier-mâché dove, image of the Holy Spirit, rocketed into glory.  The Scoppio del Carro, the “Explosion of the Cart”, begins at 10:00 A.M. when a priest strikes the Holy Sepulchre flints to spark a fire that lights the new Paschal candle.  The candle then fires the coals for the Duomo’s decoratively extravagant three-story cart (an arsenal of explosives and whirligigs).  The cart is delivered by drummers, flag throwers, Renaissance costumed players, city officials and clerics through the Piazza to the awaiting Archbishop of Florence.

At 11:00 A.M., “Gloria” is sung inside the Cathedral where the Archbishop with the red coal fire lights the Holy Spirit dove who rockets through the church along a wire to the Piazza where the dove collides with the worldly cart which explodes in a phantasm of color and light and noise, and the people cheer, and the faithful exclaim, congratulate one another, slowly disassemble, return to the day’s amusements, to Spiritual Battle, to preparation of the Easter Feast, or whatever to each seems most appropriate.

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* Leonardo made a drawing of Bandini dei Baroncelli hanging, noting the color of garments and other curious details.

Featured image: Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, The Duomo; credit, Chicco Dodi FC

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