This lovely Early Renaissance church is another one of my favorites. It’s small and elegant and feels like a place that’s been much loved by many generations of grandmothers, plus it has one of my very favorite paintings in Venice.
Santa Maria Mater Domini is located close to the campo of the same name, but the church isn’t visible from the campo itself. This part of Venice is very densely built, and it would be easy to walk by the church without even noticing it if you weren’t looking up. You can see the campanile from the middle of the campo, but you have to go down a narrow calle to see the façade and entrance to the church. The campo contains some of the oldest remaining Byzantine buildings in the city – look for the windows and the Byzantine reliefs embedded in the brickwork of the houses in the campo.
The Church and its Art
A Byzantine church, possibly dedicated to Santa Christina, was built on this site in the 10th century, and the church we see today was built in the early 1500’s and dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. After being the closed for more than a decade, the church reopened in 1981 and was beautifully restored by the British Venice in Peril foundation.
The gray and white stone interior is very small with only a handful of paintings in marble altarpieces. Lots of paintings in Venetian churches are dark and hard to see (too much varnish and age, and in need of restoration or cleaning), but these paintings are exquisite with wonderful colors. They include “Invention of the Cross” by a young Tintoretto, and “Transfiguration” by Francesco Bissolo. But the one I love the most is “The Vision of Santa Christina” by Vincenzo Catena.
Santa Christina was a pious maiden whose pagan enemies (including her father) tried to kill her in many gruesome ways with no success. In one attempt, they threw her into a lake with a millstone around her neck, but she was rescued by a band of angels. In the painting, she is remarkably unruffled after this ordeal and is surrounded by some of the most charming angels you’ll ever see. The painting is so completely Venetian with its rich vivid colors and sense of dream-like magic.
I fell in love with this painting but I’d never heard of the artist and soon learned that there’s not much to know…virtually everything that’s written about Catena uses “maybe, might, possibly.” Only a few paintings by him are in existence and not many of those are still in Venice.
Hugh Honour says that Catena “may perhaps be regarded as the first and greatest amateur in the history of art.” Catena was wealthy, possibly a spice merchant, and might have studied with Bellini. He definitely had some connection to Giorgione, another Venetian mystery man (Catena’s name is written on the back of one of Giorgione’s paintings), and they might have shared a studio in Venice.
Much of what IS known about Catena comes from his will. Titian was an executor of the will, indicating that Catena was very involved with the community of artists in Venice at the time, even if he only painted as a hobby. Catena left money to the painter’s guild to build a scuola, but the thing that makes me really admire him was the bequest he left to his fellow artists, giving them money for their daughters’ dowries. At that time in Venice, many young women were forced into convent life because their families couldn’t afford a dowry or were unwilling to spend their money on one (Mary Laven’s book “Virgins of Venice” is a chilling account of this). So I imagine Catena as an enlightened feminist-of-sorts who saved many girls from a sad sequestered life.
There are a couple of very nice Madonnas in this church including a 13th c. Veneto-Byzantine relief of the Virgin on the left side, and a Tuscan-influenced colored terracotta relief of the Madonna and Child over the high altar.
Another intriguing detail - at one time, this church had an ancient Byzantine silver altar screen (reredos) brought to Venice from Constantinople in 1204 along with the four horses of San Marco and many other stolen treasures. The altar screen disappeared in 1797 shortly after the Republic fell to Napoleon and its whereabouts are unknown. I’d love to think that it might turn up someday, but it was probably melted down for the silver like other treasure stolen from Venice’s churches at that time.
To Visit this Church
Santa Maria Mater Domini is open Monday-Saturday in the mornings from 10-12 and admission is free.
If you walk from the Rialto towards the train station and follow the yellow signs (Ferrovia), you will eventually reach the campo. From the middle of the campo (with your back to the Rialto), go down the calle to the right and the entrance to the church is on the left. To find this church starting from the San Stae vaporetto stop, walk towards Rialto (a map will come in handy!).