Santa Maria del Fiore (Our Lady of the Flower): the name of the Florence Cathedral between History and meaning
Santa Maria del Fiore… the name of the Florence Cathedral is as poetic as it is mysterious: have you ever wondered what this “Flower” is? What are its origin and meaning?
When you stop to think of the name "Santa Maria del Fiore" (Our Lady of the Flower), you can't help but think immediately of the lily of the coat of arms of Florence (which until 1251 was white on red field), and therefore of the name of the city itself: "Florentia", that is, “city destined to flourish”. Around the 59 BC ca. ancient Romans chose this auspicious name, perhaps because they founded it in spring on the occasion of the "ludes floreales" (the pagan feast of "floral games" in honor of the goddess Flora), or perhaps, according to other sources, because the name of its legendary founder was "Fiorino".
But let's look at the historical documents. One of the oldest sources is Giovanni Villani who in the first half of the 14th century, in his history of Florence (the "Chronic") claimed (but it is not certain that he is telling the truth) that this name for the new Cathedral had been chosen since from its foundation, in 1296. But he also stated that the Florentines had continued for more than a century to call it with its old name of Santa Reparata (in fact, the ancient Cathedral had been surviving inside the new one until the late 14th century). It is curious, however, that even in the official documents the name of Santa Reparata remains in use until 1412, few years before the start of work on the dome, and precisely on March 29, (and then again on April 12), when the name Santa Maria del Fiore was confirmed (or chosen for the first time?), with an official deed. Its feast was then set in the flower season, in spring and on a key day in Florentine religious and civil life: March 25th, which was both the "Florentine New Year" and the feast of the Annunciation to Mary.
With a wishful sense the Republic of Florence had also set the beginning of its own civil year in coincidence with the rebirth of nature; and that according to the liturgical calendar: it is not coincidence that the Church has chosen to celebrate in the early spring the Incarnation of the Savior, that is the beginning of the new human era of Redemption and Salvation. In the mid-15th century, however, a controversy arose between the Cathedral and the friars of the largest Florentine sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Santissima Annunziata, which celebrates her feast on the same day. For this reason, in the mid-15th century the Cathedral feast was moved to Febrary 2nd, that is the feast of The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or Candlemas.
Spring, life, flowers, rebirth, salvation, renewal ... these are the concepts that are behind the idea of the Virgin Mary’s "Flower". It is astonishing that in this same time, in the Cathedral construction site, "flourished" the "Renaissance" that is the "spring" of the arts.
But why is the flower attributed to the Virgin Mary? Often in religious art, from the 14th century onwards, we find Mary associated with flowers, especially with roses and white lilies: sometimes archangel Gabriel offers her a symbolic bouquet, other times they are in a vase depicted in rilevant position. These flowers are symbolic: the lily means her virginal purity and the rose represents Mary as "mystic rose". But the name of the Cathedral is "Our Lady of the Flower" and not viversa. Why?
Possibly, the key to the secret is in some verses by Dante Alighieri, the most important florentine poet (1265-1321). It’s important to remember that Dante, before he wrote them, had been also a member of the city government in the very years in which the construction of the new Cathedral started. In the last book of his most famous poem, the Divine Commedy (Paradiso, ch. XXXIII 1, 7-9), Dante imagined Bernard of Clairvaux, a saint remembered for his great devotion to the Virgin Mary, addressing the heavenly Mother says:
“Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,/ […]'Your womb relit the flame of love its heat has made this blossom seed and flower in eternal peace.”
The poet speaks about a “Flower” that has grown in the womb of the Virgin Mary and to which she belongs.
According to some scholars the “Flower” Dante wrote of is the “rose of the blessed”, that is, the family of the souls of those who have deserved Paradise (which are also elsewhere in the poem defined "flowers"). According to this reading, the title of the Cathedral would mean "Our Lady of the Blesseds", and therefore, by similarity to the name of the city "Florentia": " Our Lady of Florence, city of Blessed people” ...
But other experts in Dante’s Comedy differently read that word and interpret the “Flower” as a reference to Christ. According to this second reading, the Cathedral would be dedicated to Our Lady "of the Savior". In fact, in the early Middle Ages the Baptistery of Florence was dedicated to the Savior and until the sixteenth century the Florentine Republic had elected Virgin Mary and Christ as its heavenly Lords as a guarantee of its freedom. Both readings proposals are suggestive and it's not like one or the other.
Filippo Brunelleschi, who was a passionate reader of the Divine Comedy, certainly let himself be inspired by Dante's verses when he designed his dome, which, like the mantle of the Madonna, welcomes and protects "all the people of Tuscany".