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Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore

A church that’s now part of Venice’s prison, this one’s got an interesting history with not one but two miracle-working Madonna legends.

In the 1400’s, this was a remote and poor fishing neighborhood on the western shore of Venice and then an old hermit and the locals began seeing the Madonna and Child walking on the water of the canals. This happened often enough that a Franciscan nun named Caterina asked the Senate for permission to build a church here in honor of the Virgin’s miraculous visitations. The first church (built in 1497) was small and made of wood, and then someone gave the church a miracle-working Madonna icon brought to Venice from Greece, and the icon was another attraction that drew people to this area and this church.

So the miracles continued and donations poured in, and the church we see today was built in 1503-1514 along with a convent. Interesting that this all happened shortly after the Miracoli was built under similar circumstances in another part of town. Tuilio Lombardo might have been the architect of this church too, which was modeled on a church of the same name in Rome.

The convent grew from 12 nuns to hundreds, many of them noblewomen from wealthy Venetian families. It became an important religious center and the church was decorated with some great art, but the convent was not without scandal. At some point in the 1500’s the prioress had an affair with a priest from San Stae; they were caught and she was banished to Cyprus (but what happened to the priest?!).

The convent was suppressed by Napoleon, and the church was closed and stripped of its art in 1805. Two of its finest paintings are now in the Accademia: Titian’s powerful John the Baptist and Veronese’s beautiful Assumption of the Virgin which was on the church’s high altar. The church also had a Bellini and a Cima, but I’m not sure what happened to those. An important collection of relics was moved to the church of San Toma; these included a thorn from the crown and something from St. Valentine. I don’t know what happened to the miracle-working icon.

Many churches that were closed by the French later reopened but for some reason, this one didn’t, maybe because the convent burned down in 1817. The church became a tobacco warehouse and then in the 1920’s, the prison was built adjacent to it.

The Patriarch of Venice website says, “The church is currently annexed to the prison building, and in 1971 it was completely restored.” I don’t know if the church is deconsecrated and used for some other purpose OR if it’s still a church for the use of the prisoners.


The church’s nice gothic campanile is still standing behind it. You can visit this church anytime but you can’t go inside obviously, though I was surprised at how close I could get considering that it’s a prison.


More Churches:

Churches in Cannaregio
Churches in Castello
Churches in Dorsoduro
Churches in San Marco
Churches in San Polo
Churches in Santa Croce
Churches on the Lagoon Islands

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Comments (5)

Kathy (Trekcapri):

So this church was actually turned into a prison. Too bad I didn't see it. It was interesting to read about the scandolous history too. I guess there was drama back then too.

Thanks Annie!

Hi Kathy,

I haven't researched it yet but I think there's another church and/or convent that's been turned into a women's prison over on Guidecca. It's better than tearing down and rebuilding like we do in the US! Thanks, Annie


Great story. I too wonder what happened to the priest. (Probably nothing, which is maddening, isn't it?!)

Hi Anne, YES! That's exactly what I thought when I read the story and they left that part out! Annie

Mutuelle santé:

It seems that the Venice churh is rich in events and stories. If the wall could speak, it will reveal many hidden things, Joy or sorrow that have happened there. Venice the enchanting city.

george weisz:

In the church of S. Maria Magiorre nused to be a "Supper" by Tintoretto. Do we know of its whereabouts?

Hi George, I think that painting is now in the church of San Trovaso. Cheers, Annie

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 7, 2008 1:18 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Room with a view.

The next post in this blog is Sotoportego de la Madonna.

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