One of Venice’s most beautiful and familiar vistas is the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and the great temple of a church that Palladio built there. Many artists have painted it, millions of tourists have photographed it, John Ruskin hated it. But no matter what you think about this church, can you really imagine Venice without it?
The island was originally known as the Island of Cypresses; a monastery dedicated to St. Benedict opened there in the 10th century and eventually became one of the most powerful and wealthy Benedictine monasteries in the world. A Christmas Day earthquake in 1223 destroyed the entire religious complex which was quickly rebuilt. Several churches preceded the one we see today which was built between 1566 and 1610; it was Andrea Palladio’s first complete church (he had worked previously on the façade of San Francesco della Vigna).
An indication of the status of this monastery is the fact that the Papal Conclave of 1800 was held here after Napoleon invaded Rome and the Vatican fled to Venice to elect a new Pope. Soon after, this complex was suppressed– the monks were dispersed, their treasures plundered, and their finest painting (Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) taken to the Louvre. The church was only closed for a couple of years while the monastery was closed for over a century, during which time it was used as military barracks and fell into disrepair. Today, the monks are back and share the island with the Cini Foundation, a cultural research organization that has restored the entire complex.
This church is at the top of most “must see” lists for visitors to Venice. It’s dedicated to San Giorgio (St. George), a saint famed for defeating a dragon. Sister Wendy Beckett said, “St. George is a Christian saint who also existed before Christianity. He has always been there; he is the Green Man, the hero who fights the dragon of winter, the warrior who fights the dragon of death.” It’s somehow fitting that a hero saint with pagan origins would have a church inspired by classical architecture like this one.
The church is also dedicated to Santo Stefano (the first Christian martyr) whose relics were given to the Benedictines in 1109 and remain in the church today. The Venetian Republic was fond of grand ceremonial processions, and one of the biggest occurred each year on December 26 (Santo Stefano’s feast day) when the Doge and the citizens would row out to this church for Mass. The church also contains the relics of Cosmo and Damiano, the doctor saints, as well as the tombs of a number of Doges and other dignitaries.
“The proportions are perfect, the setting is supreme, and from the top of the campanile you get the best view in Venice.” – Jan Morris (The World of Venice)
The white Istrian stone façade shows Palladio’s famous innovation of two superimposed temple fronts. The Latin cross interior with one huge dome reflects his study of mathematics and music and their relation to proportion and harmony of interior spaces. Palladio believed that white was the color most pleasing to God, and there’s little decoration inside - just perfectly illuminated, perfectly enclosed space.
“The miracle is that such a scholarly church should also be deeply imbued with a sense of the numinous.” - Hugh Honour (The Companion Guide to Venice).
Most everyone agrees that this church is a Renaissance masterwork of great genius and discusses the church in terms of its harmony, grandeur, and majestic beauty. John Ruskin, however, called it gross, barbarous, childish, insipid and contemptible. No one does eccentricity quite so well as the British, and Ruskin is a perfect example. He hated anything that was built in Venice after the medieval period, on principle. While I too prefer the older Byzantine churches, it’s clear that this one is perfectly gorgeous. It’s got that cathedral feeling – beautiful and awe-inspiring rather than cozy and charming.
The church houses a large and impressive collection of art. Even Ruskin grudgingly admitted that this church is worth visiting because of its “precious pictures.”
And now for a word about Tintoretto. He’s everywhere in Venice – it’s unusual to go to a church that doesn’t have at least one painting by him. He’s the most dramatic and energetic of painters whose style works best on very large canvases, and this church has two enormous ones. Facing each other on the side walls of the chancel are The Last Supper and Gathering of the Manna (an Old Testament scene starring Moses), both painted in the last years of the artist’s life. Meant to be viewed as a pair from the altar rail, the paintings are a bit challenging to see because they are so hemmed in. But it’s interesting to compare them - Moses and Christ are wearing the same clothes and look remarkably alike, though Christ has a bigger halo and no horns.
There are seven Tintoretto “Last Suppers” in Venice – the San Giorgio Maggiore one is the best and is one of his finest works overall. It’s a strange scene, with the action set on a diagonal and eerie lighting and all these ghostly angels floating around above the table. And there are women at this Last Supper! Granted, they are waiting on the men, but still….at least they are there, along with a cute curious cat looking into a basket. Bring coins for the light boxes and be prepared to walk around a bit to find the best vantage point from which to see these massive paintings.
Behind the main altar, there’s a nice wooden choir with carved scenes of the life of St. Benedict. Look for the cute cherubs riding dolphins. Other paintings worth seeking out are Jacobo Bassano’s Nativity and Sebastiani Ricci’s Virgin with Nine Saints.
But my favorite painting in this church is the San Giorgio and the Dragon by Carpaccio. You must ask permission to see it and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a kind monk who is willing to take you up the dark spiral staircase to the chapel where this painting hangs over the high altar. It’s the room where they elected the Pope – the chairs are still decorated with the names of the cardinals who participated. The painting (completed eight years after the more well-known one in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni) is very fine.
The original campanile was built in 1467 and collapsed in 1774, killing a monk. The neo-Classical bell tower we see today was completed in 1791. There’s nothing better than looking at Venice, and this is a great place to do it. The views are amazing. You can see into the two cloisters and garden of the monastery below, you can see Venice’s only swimming pool over at the Cipriani hotel on Guidecca, and on a clear day, you can see the snow-topped Alps on the horizon behind the city.
To Visit the Island and this Church
Take the vaporetto (line 82) from the San Zaccaria stop.
Church hours are 9:30-12:30 and 2:30-5:30 from May to September. The church closes an hour earlier (4:30) in the winter. Admission to the church is free, and there’s a 3 Euro charge to ride the elevator to the top of the campanile.
On Sundays at 11 AM, the monks sing Mass in Gregorian chant, and the public is welcome.
The Cini Foundation website has information about guided tours of the monastery complex, including the Palladian cloister and refectory, Longhena’s library and great staircase, and the Teatro Verde (outdoor theater) in the largest private park in Venice.