The exuberant Santa Maria della Spina Church in Pisa, Italy, is a beautiful work of Gothic fantasy rendered in miniature, that sits on the banks of the Lungarno Gambacorti.

The eye-catching Santa Maria della Spina was originally a simple oratory for seamen, who would come here to pray for a safe return. The church was originally closer to the river bank.

The precious relic of Santa Maria della Spina Church, Pisa

In the 14th century the church was enlarged and came to house a valuable relic, one that had arrived in Pisa from the Holy Land in 1333. This relic was supposedly a thorn (“spina”) from Christ’s crown, worn during the Crucifixion.

The exterior

The church needed to reflect the value of the relic that it contained, so the best artists of the time went to work on it. These included Lupo di Francesco, Andrea Pisano with his sons Nino and Tommaso, and Giovanni di Balduccio. The “Madonna and the child with two angels” in the tabernacle on the façade is attributed to Giovanni Pisano, an important master who also worked at the Cathedral. The sumptuous decorations on the right side and in the tabernacles were made in the workshops of the Giovanni Pisano school.

The interior

In contrast with the outside, the interior is quite unostentatious. It’s essentially one open space, at one end of which stands the “Madonna of the Rose” by Andrea and Nino Pisano, one of the most notable achievements of Gothic sculpture.

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The ceiling of the church was painted during the reconstruction works in the 19th century, when the whole church was dismantled and rebuilt higher up the river bank, to keep it safe from the frequent floods.

During this process the building was slightly altered and the original statues moved to the National Museum of San Matteo where they can be seen today. It is a small but charming museum well worth a visit for the exhibitions of Medieval art.