Inside Santa Maria della Scala there is a golden treasure from the Orient…
On 24th April 1359 Friar Andrea di Grazia of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala was entrusted with a very important task. The institute gave him power of attorney to negotiate the purchase of a conspicuous quantity of relics from Byzantium, with the guarantee that they belonged to Emperor Constantine.
These were bone fragments of various saints and martyrs, a nail from the Crucifix as well as Mary’s veil, cap and girdle, which were particularly precious for a city so devoted to Mary. In addition, the first object in the list of relics was the Gospel Book with its precious cover made of gold, enamels and semi-precious stones.
Friar Andrea had to go to Venice to meet the merchant Pietro di Giunta Torrigiani, who was originally from Signa, but he was working in Constantinople and had the relics at that time. He claimed to have bought them at the Venetian Loggia during an auction ordered by Emperor John Cantacuzeno, who was in a precarious financial situation at the time and was forced to dispose of them.
So, Andrea leaves for the lagoon city, but the reason for his journey must remain a secret. Officially, he was buying unspecified ‘medicines’ for the hospital.
On 28 May, in the name and on behalf of the Institution he signed a fake donation deed with Pietro Torrigiani and his son Antonio, who transferred the agreed relics to the hospital. The deed was drawn up by the Bolognese notary Albertino Plastellini de Plastelli.
The fake donation was to avoid the accusation of simony, even though at the time the trade in relics was widespread and very much practised. In reality, Santa Maria was exposing itself significantly from a financial point of view, at a time of heavy debt.
The treasure actually greatly increased the status of Santa Maria della Scala, as the prestige and piety of a shrine depended on the importance of the relics it possessed, as they attracted pilgrims and travellers. To celebrate the arrival of the precious relics, it seems that the government of the Twelve instituted the celebration of the New Year’s Day on the day of the Most Holy Annunciation on 25 March as early as 1360 and ordered the construction of a pulpit for their display in Piazza Duomo for citizens to venerate them. The relics were locked in double-locked chests and were originally kept in the Manto chapel, a pre-existing space specially modified from its previous use.
In the following centuries, the relics were enriched by devotional gifts and objects commissioned by Santa Maria della Scala including Gothic ornaments, caskets, chalices and reliquaries.
This treasure became the most hidden and jealously guarded of the Sienese hospital and today we can admire it in its former location, the Old Sacristy, frescoed by Vecchietta between 1444 and 1449.
It’s a mystical and enchanted place, where the colours of Lorenzo di Pietro’s frescoes adorning the walls and vaults contrast with the gleaming golds and stones shining on the reliquaries, precious objects of extraordinary workmanship.
Also inside the old sacristy is the detached fresco of the Madonna del Manto or Madonna della Misericordian by Domenico di Bartolo. Painted in 1444, the fresco comes from the Manto Chapel (or Chapel of the Relics) of the hospital and was transferred here in 1610.
Where: inside Santa Maria della Scala
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