Discovering the Jubilee in Tuscany: Siena, Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Montepulciano

To celebrate the Year of Mercy, every diocese will open "Holy Doors" in its territory. A perfect opportunity to visit some of the finest regional churches

On our journey to discover all the "particular churches" in Tuscany, we've arrived at the territory administered by the Dioceses of Siena and Montepulciano-Chiusi-Pienza with the addition of Monte Oliveto Maggiore Monastery. The territorial religious organisation (which we cannot help but follow in an effort to map the more than 40 "Holy Doors" open throughout the region) offers sometimes surprises but, judging by the beauty of religious buildings on show, never disappoints.

 

In regards to Siena's religious buildings, we must start with the Cathedral of the City of the Palio, one of the most beautiful churches in the world. There is no news of the basilica, a true example of Romanesque-Gothic-Italian style, before 1226, when the Republic of Siena began recording costs and contracts related to the construction of the Cathedral, which probably began in the mid-twelfth century on the ruins of an existing structure, a temple dedicated to Minerva.

 

 

The present temple is raised by a platform and divided into a Latin cross with three naves and a dome at the intersection of the arms. The aisles are divided by pillars with a transect split in two. The transept cross consists of a hexagonal dome topped by an audacious dodecagonal cupola (among the largest of the era). The whole internal structure is dominated by two colours, white and black, the emblematic colours of the city. Among the many works of great medieval and Renaissance artists, we'll only mention the largest and most amazing: the marble floor, one-of-a-kind for its richness of invention, breadth and the importance of its collaborators. Divided into 56 panels, it shows representations from the uniform design themes of the Revelation. The oldest panels are from the late fourteenth century, the latest from the nineteenth century. Among those who worked over the centuries were Francesco di Giorgio, Pinturicchio, Sassetta, Neroccio Bartolomeo de 'Landi, Antonio Federighi, Urbano da Cortona and, above all, Domenico Beccafumi, who created some 35 scenes, reinventing the genre.

 

 

But the cathedral is not the only Jubilee church in the Siena area, there are another two small religious structures. The first is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria in Pancole, which is located along the Via Francigena and just five kilometres from San Gimignano. The small temple was founded after the discovery of a miraculous icon of the Virgin, painted towards the end of '400, by a mute young shepherdess called Bartolomea Ghini. It is said that the girl, in 1668, was particularly sad about her family's poverty and leading the flock to pasture began to cry. A beautiful woman appeared before her and asked why she was so sad. When Bartolomea replied, the woman reassured her and told her to go home where she would find the pantry full of bread, a full cruet and swollen barrels of wine. Bartolomea realised who she had spoken to and ran home calling loudly for her parents, who were amazed to hear their daughter speak and see the full pantry. All the villagers went to the pasture where the girl claimed to have seen the mysterious lady but found only a heap of brambles. The villagers removed the plants, which hid the shrine with the image which portrayed, according Bartolomea, the woman she had met. When removing the brambles, the icon was scratched by a sickle, the sign of which is still visible.

The last "Holy Door" in the Diocese of Siena is located in Montalcino and is the Church of the Madonna del Soccorso.

 

 

We continue to discover the places of redemption Jubilee with Montepulciano Cathedral, which was built in '500 over an ancient church and overlooking ones of the most beautiful squares in Italy. The only surviving structure of the previous building is the massive 14th-century bell tower, whose top was never completed. The facade is also unfinished. Inside the basilica, we see Florentine architectural ancestry, austere and elegant thanks to the empty surfaces on the plaster walls that alternate with bands of stone blocks. The layout is a Latin cross and is divided into three naves by massive pillars that support round arches. Next to a pillar to the right is the pulpit supported by Ionic columns.

 

 

We conclude with Monte Oliveto Maggiore Monastery, the last "particular churches" chosen in this part of the region. The history of the monastery began in Siena around 1313, when Giovanni de 'Tolomei, a brilliant 40-year-old from a noble family, along with Patrizio Patrizi, Ambrogio Piccolomini and some other associates, decided to break with "normal" life. They decided to retire and chose, as a place of meditation, a remote possession of the Tolomei family located 30 kilometres from Siena. Here they lived years of semi-ascetic life until in 1319. Not to be confused with the various heretical sects of friars that abounded in the peninsula, they were recognised as a congregation by the "belligerent" bishop of Arezzo Guido Tarlati Pietramala. The new congregation decided to belong to the Order of the Benedictines, following the rule known as "ora et labora". Even today, a visit to the monastery is punctuated by traditional monastic life with a strict schedule, which is announced by the unmistakable sound of a bell.

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