Art imitates architecture: the Saint Philip reliquary in Renaissance Florence.

Author:Cornelison, Sally J.

Public ritual in late medieval and Renaissance Florence was largely dependent on the cults of the city's patron saints, relics, and sacred images. (1) For example, each time a new bishop entered Florence to take possession of the bishopric, on his way from the church of S. Pier Maggiore to the cathedral of S. Maria del Fiore he would pause in the Borgo degli Albizzi. There, he would kneel and pray before a stone plaque situated where it was believed Florence's first sainted bishop, Zenobius (d. ca. 424), resurrected the son of a French pilgrim during the late fourth or the early fifth century. (2) This was only one of several monuments in the city associated with Saint Zenobius. On his feast day of May 25, the members of the Girolami family, who counted Saint Zenobius among their ancestors, celebrated and advertised their familial ties to him with a procession that began at their twelfth-century tower, located near the Ponte Vecchio in the Via Por S. Maria, and ended at the St. Zenobius Chapel in the cathedral. (3) Moreover, on the January 26 feast of Saint Zenobius's translation, Andrea Arditi's enameled and gilded silver reliquary bust (1331), which contains a fragment of the saint's skull, was carried to a cippolino marble column near the northwest wall of the baptistery of S. Giovanni (Fig. 1). The column was erected during the Middle Ages in order to mark the spot where a leafless elm tree flowered when Saint Zenobius's relics passed by it during their legendary translation from S. Lorenzo to S. Reparata in January 429. (4)

All of these celebrations and rituals took place within the perimeters of Early Christian Florence on sites that--as the Lives of Saint Zenobius inform us--were closely associated with the saint both during his life and after his death. As a result, it appears that the devotional practices particular to Saint Zenobius's cult, simply by virtue of the places in which they were carried out, reinforced his importance as an intercessor and as the spiritual founder of the Florentine church.

The cults of saints not native to the city, lacking the numerous sites associated with the local cult of Saint Zenobius, gained prominence in other ways. The Apostle Philip had no hold in Florentine worship until a relic of his arm was acquired in the Holy Land (Fig. 2). From the time it arrived in Florence in the spring of 1205, the apostle was embraced as a patron and protector of the entire city and its citizens. His arm, the oldest documented relic at the Florentine baptistery, rivaled the popularity of the Saint Zenobius reliquary bust in the frequency of its display.

Between 1422 and 1425 a new reliquary was made for Saint Philip's arm (Fig. 3). Unlike the Saint Zenobius head reliquary, which is a so-called speaking, or body-part, reliquary that reflects the type of relic it contains, the arm of Saint Philip is housed in an elongated ostensorium, a monstrance reliquary that shelters the precious relic in a glass, crystal, and gilded silver architectural frame. (5) The design and ritual use of the reliquary, a superb example of microarchitecture, further promoted the saint's importance, through the power of his arm relic, as an intercessor for the Florentines. The literature on this object is, for a work in precious metal, relatively extensive, but discussions of the reliquary have rarely gone beyond issues of style. (6) Although Saint Philip's arm belonged to the baptistery, we shall see that its fifteenth-century reliquary is composed of a combination of architectural and ornamental elements that are based on the dome, lantern, and sculptural program of the adjacent Florentine Cathedral. The formal connection between the Saint Philip reliquary and S. Maria del Fiore has been noted in the literature, but the extent and symbolic implications of their structural and decorative similarities, especially for Florentine ritual, have not been fully explored. (7) This essay will show that, because it emulates S. Maria del Fiore's architecture and decorations, the Saint Philip reliquary was an innovative, potent, and explicit symbol of the bond between the protective and healing power of the apostle whose relic it contains and the city of Florence. It was a symbol whose local and regional significance was advertised and reached its full potential each time the reliquary was displayed in the baptistery and cathedral and carried in procession through the city streets. Thus, rather than being associated with specific sites, like the cult and relics of Saint Zenobius, the Saint Philip reliquary became an effective and portable testament to the arm relic's significance for Florence and its citizens through ritual performance.

The Translation of Saint Philip's Arm to Florence

The civic and episcopal promotion of Saint Philip's arm as one of the most important and powerful of all of Florence's relics began with a detailed account of its translation from the Holy Land. Commissioned by Giovanni da Velletri, the bishop of Florence (1204-30), shortly after the relic was placed in the baptistery, the traslatio text is preserved in two manuscripts, one at Florence's Biblioteca Riccardiana, the other at the Opera del Duomo, and the event was noted by virtually all Florentine chroniclers. (8) The relic's history received its most extensive treatment, however, at the hands of the antiquarian Giovanni Mariti in the late eighteenth century. (9)

The arm of Saint Philip boasted an especially illustrious provenance in that it had belonged to Maria Komnenos, niece of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I and widow of the king of Jerusalem and Cyprus. It was through the efforts of a rather remarkable number of high-ranking Florentine ecclesiastical officials in the Holy Land that the relic was obtained and eventually sent to Tuscany. (10) The Florentine patriarch of Jerusalem. Monaco di Mompi di Riccomanno de' Corbizzi, a former cleric at the baptistery of S. Giovanni, is the primary protagonist in the story of the relic's translation. (11) Inspired by a desire to honor the city of his birth with an impressive gift, he informed Maria Komnenos that it was not permissible (lecito) that a layperson, especially a woman, possess such an important relic, much less keep it among her secular treasures. (12) The queen apparently took the patriarch's words to heart and promptly handed the relic over to him. Once news of this transaction reached Florence, the city's bishop, Pietro, wrote numerous letters to Monaco de' Corbizzi requesting him to send the relic to Florence. This, however, did not happen until 1203, when the patriarch, who was near death, commissioned a certain Ranieri, another Florentine and the prior of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, to transport the arm of Saint Philip to Florence. With the support of Gualterotto, the Florentine bishop of St. John at Acre, and with permission to remove the relic from the Holy Land from the new patriarch of Jerusalem, Alberto da Vercelli--who was also from Florence--Ranieri set off for the Italian peninsula.


The traslatio text describing the relic's arrival in Florence and its subsequent placement in the baptistery closely follows the typology of the late antique and medieval relic adventus, the ceremony celebrating the arrival of holy remains. By involving all of a city's citizens, adventus ceremonies were orchestrated to show that the new relic would aid and protect the entire community. (13) The Florentine adventus took place on March 2, 1205, and began with the synantesis, the reception of the relic by high-ranking civic and ecclesiastical officials. This part of the ceremony was led not by Bishop Pietro, who had worked to secure the relic for Florence, but rather by his successor, Giovanni da Velletri, and the podesta, or governor, Count Rodolfo di Capraia. (14) Together with the cathedral clergy, they met the relic at the city's south gate, the Porta S. Pier Gattolino (the present-day Porta Romana). Giovanni da Velletri then carried it in procession (the propompe) to the Piazza S. Giovanni, accompanied by the sound of the Florentine people singing hymns in honor of the apostle. The translation ceremony concluded with the apothesis, or deposition, of the arm of Saint Philip in the baptistery of S. Giovanni. At this time, the relic was probably placed inside the block altar in the baptistery's chapel, or scarsella, the rectangular apse on the west side of the Romanesque structure whose construction had been begun just two years before Saint Philip's arm arrived in the city (Fig. 4). (15) The relic's power was revealed almost immediately, for it performed several miracles, which included healing an ailing goldsmith and preventing a little girl from drowning in the Arno--thus providing timely proof of the saint's efficacy as a protector of Florence and its people. It was also significant for the Florentines that the acquisition of Saint Philip's arm coincided with the Western victory over Constantinople, something that was noted in the traslatio and that certainly added to the relic's prestige. (16)



Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century documents indicate that when it arrived in Florence, the arm of Saint Philip was kept in a gilded and enameled silver reliquary casket, or forzerino. (17) The Florentine relic had (and still has) further decorations that were apparently attached to it prior to its arrival in Florence. The earliest of these ornaments is a silver plaquette, probably dating from the twelfth century, that is embossed with an image of the saint and inscribed with the words "Philip Apostle" in Greek (Fig. 5). A band of gilded silver inscribed with Gothic lettering that reads BRACHIUM S. PHILIPPI encircles the wrist of the arm relic.

It is likely that from the beginning, the relic of Saint Philip's arm had more than just local significance for Florence and its citizens, as its acquisition heightened the city's status...

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