Pistoia: Sant’Andrea

Church of Sant’Andrea.

We were confronted with two issues when we wanted to visit the church of Sant’Andrea in August of last year: limited opening hours and an admission charge. This may be the standard arrangement, but it may also have been linked to the global COVID-19 crisis. In any case, the first time we showed up the church turned out to be closed. Fortunately our second attempt was more successful, as the Sant’Andrea, dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle, is a church in Pistoia one should not miss. The admission charge is fairly modest (a few Euros if I recall correctly) and should never be a reason to skip this church. One advantage of paid access is that the visitor has a few privileges: the official on duty will turn on the lights for you. And extra light is very welcome, for the Sant’Andrea is a very dark church with narrow slits for windows.

History and exterior

The church dates from the early Middle Ages, perhaps from the seventh or eighth century. Officially it is still called the pieve of Sant’Andrea, which indicates that it was initially a church with a baptismal font that stood outside the city walls. People from the country would travel to the pieve to have their children baptised. Now one should know that it is just a five minute walk from the Sant’Andrea to the cathedral of Pistoia and the Baptistery (from the fourteenth century), so it is clear that Pistoia must have been just a tiny city in the early Middle Ages, actually no more than a large village. The present church dates from the twelfth century. It may have been completed in about 1166, the year in which the beautiful architrave above the entrance was made.

Architrave above the main entrance.

The architrave is the work of the sculptor Gruamonte and his brother Adeodato. We know little about Gruamonte’s life, but he was also active at other churches in Pistoia. If we study the architrave, we see the three Magi on horseback on their way to Bethlehem on the left. In the centre are King Herod and a messenger and on the right the three Magi offer their gifts to the Christ child. The Christ child by the way looks more like a twelve-year-old than a baby, but do note the cradle or manger standing next to Mary: in it lies the second version of the Christ child, or so I assume. It blesses the Magi with his right hand. On the far right is Joseph, an old man leaning on a walking stick. The architrave has two texts in Latin. The lower of the two reads:

Portal with the main entrance of the church.


The inscription can be compared to that on the architrave of the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas elsewhere in Pistoia, which was also sculpted by Gruamonte. The Sant’Andrea inscription can be translated as: “Good master Gruamonte and his brother Adeodato made this work”. Rather oddly, the inscription uses both U and V for the letter ‘u’; in classical Latin only V was used. The upper inscription is much smaller and more difficult to interpret, but it reads:


Which translates as:

“Look, there are the three Magi; they have followed the Royal star. You are being deceived, Herod, you are going to wish that Christ will perish. Melchior, Caspar, Balthasar. The star guides the Magi. They give the child three presents.”

The capitals supporting the architrave are not the work of Gruamonte and Adeodato; they were made by a certain Magister Henricus, who signed his work on the right capital. This capital depicts the Annunciation and has the Latin text AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA DOMINVS TECVM, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”. On the left capital a angel appears to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, has conceived and will bear a son named John (the Baptist). It is difficult to read the Latin text here; I can barely make out NE TIMEA ZACHARIAS, “Do not fear, Zechariah”. This text is from Luke 1:13.

Interior of the church.

In the lunette above the entrance is a statue of Saint Andrew, Saint Peter’s brother. The statue is a replica; the original – possibly sculpted by Giovanni Pisano – can be found inside the church. The replica is flanked by two lions that have each caught a prey, a dragon on the left and a sinner on the right. The central part of the façade is nicely decorated with geometrical patterns, executed in white and green marble. Judging by a drawing made in 1894, the upper part of the façade was once embellished in similar fashion, but apparently these decorations have not survived. Note that the marble head of a man has been attached to the column to the right of the entrance. It is not clear whose head we are looking at, but the information panel in the church suggests he may be Filippo Tedici, a notorious traitor from the fourteenth century. In 1324 he was bribed by the mercenary captain (condottiero) Castruccio Castracani to depose his uncle Ormanno, an abbot who was Lord of Pistoia. Castracani subsequently captured the city. Upon Castracani’s death in 1328, Filippo was arrested and decapitated. The head at the church of Sant’Andrea may have served as a warning.


From the preceding section of this post it follows that the exterior of the church has much to offer in its own right. After buying a ticket we could also admire Sant’Andrea’s interior. The church has the shape of a classical Roman basilica, with a central nave and two aisles. Both the nave and the aisles are high and narrow. The floor is modern and ugly, and the walls are largely undecorated. In the apse we see a faded fresco of God the Father inside a mandorla, surrounded by four angels. It was painted in 1506 by Bernardino del Signoraccio (ca. 1460-1540), a fairly obscure painter from Pistoia. However, he was also the father of the more famous Fra Paolino da Pistoia (ca. 1488-1547), a Dominican friar who painted beautiful religious works.

Apse fresco by Bernardino del Signoraccio.

In the vicinity of the apse we find more interesting works of art. In a lunette on the left is a fresco by the local painter Gerino d’Antonio Gerini (ca. 1480-1529 or 1531), which was painted in 1506. The fresco features Christ rising from the grave. Next we may admire a painted wooden crucifix from the seventeenth century. The crucified Christ is wearing a crown and a gold-trimmed blue tunic (colobium). The crucifix is based on the Volto Santo (‘Holy Face’), a wooden crucifix from the eighth or ninth century that is kept in the cathedral of Lucca. We do not know the name of the man who painted the crucifix in Pistoia. To the left of the apse we find a panel painting featuring a Madonna and Child, also known as the Madonna dell’Umiltà. In this case the name of the painter is known: Niccolò di Mariano from Siena. His name is mentioned below the Madonna, together with the date: 17 July 1492. A remarkable element of the panel are the kneeling and praying figures wearing black robes and hoods.


Pulpit by Giovanni Pisano (1301).

No matter how good it is, the art discussed above is not the reason to visit the church of Sant’Andrea. The most prized possession in the church is the beautiful pulpit, sculpted in 1298-1301 by Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1315). My travel guide is jubilant about the pulpit and claims that “according to some, this is a masterpiece, even better than the pulpit he would later make for the cathedral of Pisa”. And a masterpiece it is, but whether it is more beautiful than Giovanni’s pulpit in Pisa is up to the reader to decide.

The pulpit is hexagonal and is supported by seven columns made of red marble. Three of the columns have an ordinary base, but the other four are special. Of these four, the three on the outside have a lion (twice) or a man for a base, while the central column rests on a winged lion, a griffin and an eagle. Perched on top of the pulpit is another eagle, which doubles as a lectern. Unfortunately it is a replica. The original is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. According to the website of the museum it arrived in the United States as early as 1918. Of course we all know that the eagle is the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist. Below the replica we see the symbols of the other three evangelists. In this respect the pulpit resembles the pulpit we have previously seen in the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia.

Adoration of the Magi.

Last Judgment.

The upper part of the pulpit is decorated with five sculpted reliefs on which we can admire scenes from the life of Christ: the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the murder of the Innocents, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment. The level of detail is stunning; just note the donkey and the ox in the Nativity scene, the star of Bethlehem with a human face in the Adoration of the Magi and the spectacle that is the Last Judgment (see the image above). Everything has been both beautifully and powerfully executed. Opposite the pulpit, on the right wall, we find the statue of Saint Andrew that was originally in the lunette above the entrance. As was already mentioned, the statue is tentatively attributed to Giovanni Pisano as well. Below it are six sculpted panels from a pluteus or balustrade. These are attributed to Guido Bigarelli, also known as Guido da Como. He is best known for his pulpit, made in 1250, that can be found in the church of San Bartolomeo in Pantano in Pistoia. It is likely the panels in the Sant’Andrea were made around the same time.

Saint Andrew (above) and six panels of a balustrade.

Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Florence and Tuscany, the information panel in the church and Italian Wikipedia.


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