The Greek Orthodox cathedral with a leaning tower, this church is dedicated to San Giorgio (St. George), the charismatic dragon-fighting, princess-saving saint.
It’s kinda cool that there are four churches in Venice dedicated to St. George – two Catholic, one Greek Orthodox, and one Anglican (founded by the British). He’s a superhero/saint for all seasons, and there are images of him and that dragon all over Venice.
The Venetian Republic was known for its religious tolerance. Venice was the only Catholic country in Europe that never executed a heretic during the many centuries when religious strife and inquisitions were the order of the day, and non-Catholic residents of Venice, such as the Greeks, were allowed to practice their own faith.
This Castello neighborhood has been home to Venice’s Greek community for centuries. Initially the Greeks worshiped in a chapel in the Catholic church of San Biagio and then in the early 1500’s, they received permission to build the church we see today. They also built a confraternity (Scuola di San Nicolo) as well as a college, convent, and hospital in the area surrounding the church. The palazzi to the left of the church (the college and the scuola) were built by Longhena, the architect who also built Santa Maria della Salute.
The church and other institutions were looted by the French in the 19th century and while the Greek population declined after the fall of the Republic, it never completely died out. The church is still active and in 1991, it was proclaimed cathedral for all Orthodox faithful in Italy.
The Longhena palazzi now contain the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine Studies and a museum with one of the largest collections of Byzantine icons in western Europe.
The Church and its Art
The church faces a canal in a pleasant courtyard surrounded by lacy metal gates, and the courtyard’s stone well-heads are carved with scenes of the saint and the dragon.
Begun in 1539 by Sante Lombardo (grandson of Pietro), the church was consecrated in 1561 and completed in 1573 by Giannantonio Chiona. The neo-classical Renaissance façade is impressive, made of white Istrian stone with a few mosaic details. There’s no real indication that this isn’t just another Catholic church until you get inside and see the golden Orthodox interior with a women’s gallery over the entrance and an iconostasis (screen) that completely hides the high altar.
This is a great church to visit if you like mosaics, icons and incense, which I do. There are 46 icons on the iconostasis alone -18 of them were done by Michael Damaskinos, the greatest artist of the Venetian-Cretan school at the time the church was built. The most precious work is a 14th c. icon of Christ the Pantocrator, donated by an exiled Greek princess. Another Greek artist (John the Cypriot) frescoed the walls of the cupola under the supervision of Tintoretto.
It's straighter than it used to be, and cleaner. The photo below is from 2003 while the one above is from 2007. Evidently it began tilting immediately after its construction in 1592, and it appears to be propped up by a little loggetta that’s adjacent to the canal.
To Visit this Church
Opening hours are 9-1 and 3-5 on Monday and Wednesday –Saturday, and admission is free. Orthodox services are held on Sunday mornings at 9:30 and 10:30 am.
There’s a 4 Euro admission fee to the Byzantine icon museum.