This is the most famous of a number of churches in Venice that have or had legendary miracle-working paintings, icons, or sculptures of the Madonna. Santa Maria dei Miracoli is named for and was built to house its painting with legendary healing power.
When friends ask me for recommendations about what to see/do in Venice, I vary my answers depending on how long they’re going to be there and what they’re interested in. I realize that not everyone wants to go tromping around Venice looking for churches that probably won’t even be open when they get there! So my short list of “must-see” churches includes only three of them, and Miracoli is on that list (along with the Basilica di San Marco and the Frari).
Even people with no interest in churches should visit this one – for one, because they’ve never seen anything like it, and also because finding it will be an adventure. It took me a long time to find it the first time. There’s no view from afar of this church – you search for it, map in hand, and then all of sudden, it’s right there in front of you, and it’s so surprising and perfect and beautiful. It takes my breath away every time I see it.
It all started with a street shrine.
Venice was probably the first city in the world with streets lit at night. Beginning in the 11th century or so, these first street lights were shrines – little altar-like niches with a Madonna or saint in them along with a candle or lamp. These shrines are still all over Venice today, sometimes adorned with fresh flower offerings to the saints inside.
So in the early 1400’s, a Venetian merchant named Francesco Amadi commissioned a painting of the Madonna from artist Nicolo di Pietro. At some point, the Amadi family placed the painting in a shrine outside their home. And then this Madonna began working miracles. We aren’t talking about one or two miracles, there were hundreds of them including at least one revival of a drowned man. Crowds of pilgrims began coming, and the painting was moved into a wooden tabernacle in a courtyard that could better accommodate the crowds.
The miracles continued, priests began celebrating Mass before the shrine, and there was a public groundswell to build a church (a votive temple) to house the painting. A procurement committee was formed (its members included Leonardo Loredan who later became Doge and had his portrait painted by Bellini, see left), and donations poured in from the devotees.
Pietro Lombardo was an architect and sculptor who headed a workshop which included his sons, Tullio and Antonio. Known as the Lombardi, this workshop built and/or decorated some of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Venice. They won the contract for Miracoli (possibly by contest) and began work in 1481. The project was underway when they realized that they had more money than they needed, so the original plan was modified to make the church a bit larger and to build a Franciscan convent next door.
Consecrated on December 31, 1489, Miracoli became one of Venice’s most beloved churches. By the late 20th century, the church was literally on the verge of falling down, but a recent ten-year, $4 million dollar restoration by the Save Venice foundation has this church looking amazing.
The Church and its Art
Was there ever a church more aptly named? Virtually everyone who writes about this church describes it as a miracle, a precious jewel or an exquisite treasure chest. Both the exterior and interior are covered with multi-colored, beautifully-veined marble, discs of colored stone, and romantic Lombardi carvings. It’s one of the few churches in Venice with four visible sides, and all of them are gorgeous.
Miracoli disproves the notion that “bigger is better” when it comes to sacred space. It’s quite small with a single nave interior with a barrel vault. Inside and above the main entrance, there’s a nun’s gallery (barco) supported by carved pillars. Originally there was a covered bridge from the convent to this gallery which allowed the cloistered nuns to come to church and remain unseen, but the bridge was destroyed after the convent was suppressed by the French in the 19th century. The church’s ceiling is covered with 50 paintings of prophets and saints framed by carved gilded wood.
The chancel (high altar) is elevated with a long flight of stairs leading up to the miraculous painting. The whole area is crowned with a dome and decorated with lots of intricate Lombardi carving; the grand arch is carved with famous images of cherubs, children, and mermaids. Both Ezra Pound and H.D (Hilda Doolittle) mention the Miracoli mermaids in their poetry.
At one time the church had organ doors painted by Bellini (these are now in the Accademia). It’s an Annunciation scene that looks like it’s occurring inside Miracoli – the Virgin and Archangel Gabriel are in front of marble-clad walls just like those in this church.
“No little building in the world is more fascinating than the Renaissance church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, hidden away behind the Rialto like a precious stone in ruffled satin….I cannot imagine the most truculent of atheists failing to remove his hat as he enters this irresistible sanctuary.” – Jan Morris in The World of Venice
“One of the most beautiful small buildings in the world…it looks at first sight almost too good to be true – not a real church but part of the background of a painting by Bellini or Carpaccio.” – Hugh Honour in A Companion Guide to Venice
To Visit this Church
This is a Chorus Pass church (open 10-5 Monday through Saturday). It’s supposed to be closed on Sundays, but I found it open on a Sunday afternoon last year.
The Miracoli is no longer open for Mass, at least not on a regular basis (it's not listed in the Patriarch of Venice brochure that has Mass times).
It’s a bit easier to access from the northwest (which will take you to the back of the church) than the southeast (which will make the façade the first thing you see). When you come from the northwest (starting around Salizzada San Canciano), there are a few signs pointing the way, but bring a map along too.
Here’s what I'd LOVE to see in December!