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Church of Santa Maria della Spina

Built in the early 13th-century, the Church of Santa Maria della Spina is tiny and typically Pisan Gothic in its exuberant facade. To many, this Gothic facade is one of the most outstanding examples of the type in Europe and this beautiful church should definitely figure on any Pisan itinerary. It was originally built as an oratory for seamen and travelers who would come here and pray for a safe return from their voyages.

When first consecrated, the church was known as the Santa Maria di Pontenovo after a nearby bridge which collapsed in the 15th-century and was never rebuilt. The church's present name was acquired in 1333 when it received a reliquary in the form of a thorn reputed to have been taken from the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion. The precious reliquary was later moved to the Church of Santa Chiara, but the tiny church retained its thorny name.

On arrival of the relic, it was felt that the church needed to be improved to reflect its newly elevated status so the best Tuscan artists of the time were commissioned. Among the works of art produced was the impressive sculpture, Madonna of the Child with Two Angels which has been attributed to the Pisano school. Located in a tabernacle, this dominates the church's facade.

In contrast to the extravagant exterior, the interior is rather plain and unostentatious, creating a stark backdrop to Andrea and Nino Pisano's painting, Madonna of the Rose. Further examples of medieval art that were originally housed in the church can now be seen in the charming National Museum of San Matteo.

In the 19th-century, it was felt that Santa Maria della Spina was at risk from flooding and it was painstakingly moved, stone by stone, from its original location on the banks on the River Arno. It now sits on higher ground near the Lungarno Gambacorti. After this move, the ceiling was repainted and the church has undergone further restoration work in recent years and is once again open to the public.

The Church of Santa Maria della Spina is just a short walk from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and entry is free. It doesn't, however, open every day so it is a good idea to check before planning a visit.