My ten favorite works of art in situ and why you should see art in its original context

Of course I had a conversion experience: it happened in Florence, back when I wasn’t such a prepared traveler.  HOB and I were on our honeymoon eating too much gelato and wandering through the art historical wonders of this Renaissance city.  We entered the Museum of San Marco on a whim and were instantly drawn in by its strong collection of Fra Angelico panels.  After a lengthy visit on the first floor we walked up a staircase and there—a revelation.—Fra Angelico’s famous annunciation with it’s graceful pink-robed angel bowing before Mary.  It was a fresco!  How had I not know it was a fresco?  The angel’s wings glittered!  And then around the corner from the annunciation there were all these little rooms that we peeked into—they were monk’s cells! And inside each monk’s cell a small fresco by Fra Angelico.  Monks, with their commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience, once slept in these tiny rooms and prayed to their own private fresco.

That encounter with the tiny frescos was the tipping point for me: I started to think of art in terms of context; where it was meant to be seen, who was meant to experience it, about the materials available to the artist.  Art was alive and travel was meant to take us to see it in situ.

Naturally, like any convert, I want to proselytize.  Fellow travelers pay attention—whenever you get a chance, go to the primary source.   The ultimate primary source for cultural travel is to see art in situ.  While museums are essential treasure houses of knowledge, there’s nothing like experiencing art in it’s original context.

Below are my top ten art in situ travel experiences.   Before you dive in,  let’s clear something up: no one reading this has unlimited resources for traveling.  While it’s wonderful to make a pilgrimage to an exotic destination, your home town also can be full of in situ treasures if you seek them out.  (See my last post about the art of Thomas Kong installed in a bodega two blocks from my apartment).  Also, the experiences I list below are all in Europe.  Is that because I’m some sort of elitist Euro-centric art snob?  Nope.  I just have an interest in Western art history, so the list reflects my interest.  Finally, I’m only listing places I’ve actually visited, and just art in situ.  Obviously, there are artworks I adore that don’t qualify for the list because they’ve been removed from their original context.  For example, I’m dying to list the Bayeux Tapestry, which is still in Bayeux, though now on view in a museum, not in the church where it was originally displayed.

Here they are, travel friends—just thinking about these experiences make me happy to be a human.  (Click on the photo for a full post).

ftghut #1: Cave paintings in Font-de-Gaume

With its sophisticated, well-planned polychrome paintings circa 17,000 BC, Font-de-Gaume cave in Southwest France is the ultimate destination for a lover of art in situ.

bachstatue #2: Bach’s St. John Passion at St. Thomas church in Leipzig on Good Friday 

The ethereally moving music of St. John Passion on Good Friday, in the church where Bach composed and premiered the work in 1724, sung by the choir that’s been performing sacred music in Leipzig, Germany for over 800 years—that, my friends, is why music should also be heard in situ.

giotto1 #3: Giotto’s Scrovengni Chapel

Giotto’s masterfully complete fresco cycle inside Scrovengni chapel of Padua, Italy is an art history blockbuster.  Plus, there are dorky camels.

autun5 #4: Stone carvings by Gislebertus at the Cathedral of Autun

French Romanesque sculpture at the Cathedral of Autun by my favorite artist Gislebertus, whose mastery of expression, high-relief and depth of field you must see in person to fully appreciate, is also a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage stop. (And hey, since the church is in Burgundy—region of outrageously delicious cheese—it’s the ideal location for a picnic at the cathedral).

dragonslayer#5: The Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers

Dramatically displayed inside the Château d’Angers in Angers, France, the Apocalypse Tapestry from the 1370’s narrates the book of Revelations with such skill and craft, you’ll be wondering, why isn’t this artwork world famous?

labado3  #6 The Cloister of Monreale Cathedral

Head to Sicily to experience a 12th century taste of paradise inside the cloister of Monreale Cathedral.  After years of art-history book drooling over the justifiably renowned Romanesque double arches, my actual encounter with the cloister was equal parts meta-experience and exotic escapism.

stcloseup  #7 Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria  

You’ll swoon with admiration of Bernini’s ingeniously constructed sculptural mise-en-scène inside a chapel in Rome.  Divine spiritual transformation rendered in marble with—surprise!—a built in audience.

oviedostairs  #8 Santa María del Naranco in Oviedo

Santa María del Naranco is a mid-9th century former palace in the kingdom of Asturias, present day Oviedo, Spain.  A visit to this architecturally innovative and beautiful pre-Romanesque structure with its unique Visigoth-influenced details will convince you that a building can also be a work of art.

palentinaview  #9 Mosaics in Cappella Palatina in Palermo

This is what happens when great cultures—Arab, Norman and Byzantine–mix.  The pristine Cappella Palatina in Palermo (1140-70) is a dazzling destination for mosaics and more.  (Note to foodies: the street food of Palermo also reflects that delicious cultural mix–get ready to eat yourself silly after a day of mosaic-gaping).

mcband  #10 Stan Ion Patras’ Merry Cemetary of Sapanta

Stan Ion Patras transformed a graveyard in Northern Romania into a conceptual art installation.  I almost skipped the cemetery, writing it off as a tourist novelty—I’ll so glad I didn’t.   The Merry Cemetery speaks of what it means to be a human while embracing the humor and dignity of an ordinary life.


Are you salivating yet?  As a rabid, snake-handing holy-rolling convert I certainly hope so.  Please tell me about your top art in situ travel experiences.  How did you discover them, either at home and abroad?



  1. Well, at least I’ve seen #1. Mine would include the windows in Chartres and the Sainte Chapelle, Wells Cathedral, and hearing music (though regrettably not a choir) in King’s College Chapel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chartes is hard because I couldn’t choose between the windows and the sculpture: they’re both too gorgeous!

      I haven’t been to Wells Cathedral yet so thanks for the inspiration.


  2. I just swooned. 😍😍😍

    Liked by 1 person

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