The most beautiful gothic church in town with one of the loveliest facades in Venice. Of all the many red brick-fronted churches, this one is special with its white stone tracery, trim, and sculpture.The church was originally named for the patron saint of travelers and gondoliers, San Cristoforo Martire, but early in its history the church came into possession of a miracle-working statue of the Madonna and Child, and the name changed.
There are a couple of different stories about this statue. One is the legend that the statue flew to Venice on its own power and landed in a nearby orchard. The other is that the statue was commissioned from sculptor Giovanni de Santi by another church (Santa Maria Formosa) which then rejected it after its completion. The scorned artist placed it in his garden where it began working miracles and attracting crowds of pilgrims. The statue was moved onto the high altar of this church which then became known as Madonna dell’Orto (Our Lady of the Garden or Orchard) or Madonna Odorosa (The Sweet-Smelling Madonna). The statue attracted many visitors whose financial donations probably helped the church to acquire its impressive collection of art.
After falling into disrepair, the church was closed for several decades in the mid-19th century, during which time it was used as a stable, powder magazine, and wine warehouse. It was partially restored by the Austrians and reopened in 1876 as a parish church. Madonna dell’ Orto was badly damaged in the great flood of 1966 after which the British Venice in Peril organization funded a complete restoration.
The Church and its Art
Work on this church began in the 14th century and continued for the next 100 years or so. Bartolomeo Bon designed the ornate early Renaissance entrance which includes a statue of San Cristoforo with baby Jesus on his shoulder (the church remains dedicated to this saint despite the name change). The church has a simple and lovely rose-pink interior with gray marble columns, some nice arches, wooden beams and ceiling, and beautiful altars.
Sometimes referred to as “The Tintoretto Church” not only because it contains ten of his paintings (more than any other church) but also because the artist and his family are buried in the chapel to the right of the high altar. While there are Tintorettos all over Venice, this is an interesting collection that spans several decades. Eight of his paintings decorate the high altar area, including two massive, 50-foot high works (Worship of the Golden Calf and The Last Judgment).
My favorites are Presentation of the Virgin and Miracle of St. Agnes, which were the first and last pieces he completed for this church. The St. Agnes altarpiece has some beautiful angels dressed in vivid blue. The Presentation of the Virgin began as organ doors but now the two pieces are joined – Vasari (Lives of the Artists) thought it was Tintoretto’s finest painting. It’s beautiful though a bit puzzling -which one of these children is Mary? Perhaps they all represent her at different stages of her journey up those steep temple stairs?
Also worth seeing are Cima de Conegliano’s altarpiece, John the Baptist with Saints, and a Titian Tobias and the Angel which was recently moved here from the nearby church of San Marziale. Sadly, the Bellini Madonna and Child in the first altar on the left was stolen (for the third time, some say!) in 1993.
And then there’s the miracle-working statue, the Madonna Miracolosa, no longer on the high altar but now in the Chapel of San Mauro. It’s a heavy and primitive-looking piece, very friendly and likable though not a masterpiece at all.
Completed in 1503, this is one of the most distinctive and recognizable towers in Venice with its Islamic-looking onion-shaped dome. It’s decorated with statues from the Lombardi workshop, and the statue on the very top is San Cristoforo.
To Visit this church
Madonna dell' Orto left the Chorus Pass organization in 2013. The church has its own website: visiting hours are posted here.
You get from Tintoret’s work the impression that he felt pictorially, the great, beautiful, terrible spectacle of human life very much as Shakespeare felt it poetically – with a heart that never ceased to beat a passionate accompaniment to every stroke of his brush.
(Henry James, Italian Hours)