Santa Maria della Spina Travel GuideIntroduction
The small Gothic church of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa was built in 1230 and was originally known as Santa Maria di Pontenovo, or “St. Mary of the New Bridge,” after the newly-built bridge that was beside it at the time. Later on, its name was changed to “Spina,” the Italian word for “thorn,” thanks to the story that one of the thorns from Christ’s crown when he was crucified is housed here, supposedly arriving on the premises in 1333 and then kept in the church’s reliquary. Nowadays, though the reliquary is no longer around, the name remains. The church that we know today is also not exactly how it was when it was first built, as in 1871, the original church had to be dismantled, relocated, and rebuilt at a higher spot because it was in danger of sustaining damage from the rising waters of the Arno River. As a result of the process, the look of the church ended up slightly altered.
Santa Maria della Spina remains a charming attraction, however, because of its small size and its picturesque location that overlooks the river. It is also known for its beautiful Gothic pinnacles that adorn its roof all around, as well as the statues and sculptures that populate its exterior. Many of the delicate pinnacles are topped by statues of the Virgin Mary, and there are also many niches and tabernacles on its façade that visitors can inspect and admire. Among the figures that can be found are those of various angels and saints, all from the workshop of the famous sculptor Nino Pisano. There is also a pillar which houses a sculpture of a Madonna and Child that was made by Giovanni di Balduccio. All of these make the tiny church truly stand out in a neighborhood that is composed of mostly plain residential and commercial buildings, and come evening, it takes on an almost ethereal quality when it is lit up by floodlights.
What to See
What this church lacks in size, it makes up for in its richly-decorated exterior. Made almost entirely out of white marble, visitors can end up spending a lot of time just inspecting each of the many elements that can be found on the church’s walls. There are many elegant and complicated sculptures that were created by local artists dating back to the 14th century, and its rose-windows further enhance the structure’s beauty.
For the observant traveler, one will notice that on one side can be found 13 unique statues that represent the Apostles. On another side can also be found a statue of Christ as well other sculptures that depict the Annunciation.
While the church’s exterior is opulent and elaborate, be aware that the interior is the complete opposite. It is minimalistic in design and consists of a single room. However, it is still worth stepping inside, as it is here where you can find the gorgeous sculpture of the Madonna of the Rose which was created by master sculptors Nino and Andrea Pisano, and is considered as a masterpiece from the early Renaissance. There is also a tabernacle on one wall where the reliquary used to be, and this element was created by Stagio Stagi who lived in the 1500s.
Tips and Advice
- The Church of Santa Maria della Spina is located just outside the historic center and is within easy walking distance from the Leaning Tower. Walk a little further and there are also bus stops as well as Pisa’s main train station.
- Take note that the church tends to have varying opening hours, so if you wish to be able to step inside, it is best to check with the Pisa Tourist Information Office before visiting.
- The church hosts many exhibits and displays that change periodically. Again, check with the tourist office to see if they have an ongoing exhibit and if there will be an admission fee. If there isn’t one, admission is free, but take note that if the church is closed, it may be most likely because they are preparing a new exhibit.