This isn’t one of my favorite churches in Venice by any stretch, but one of my best and most memorable church VISITS was to this one because of the big surprise I found inside when I went for the first time. One of the few churches on the Grand Canal, this is the place to come for 18th century Venetian painting and if you are lucky (like me), some modern art too.
This church is dedicated to San Eustachio (St. Eustace) who, in the quirky world of the Venetian dialect, morphed into San Stae. San Eustachio was a second century Roman general who was out hunting one day and saw a vision of Christ in between a stag’s antlers, so he converted to Christianity, endured a bunch of Job-like trials, and was eventually martyred.
The church often hosts temporary art exhibits and concerts (it’s known for great acoustics) and is also one of the exhibition sites for the Biennale, Venice’s famous biannual extravaganza of contemporary art from around the globe.
The church and its art
There’s been a church on this site since the 10th or 11th century, although the first church didn’t face the Grand Canal. The disintegrating original church was demolished in 1678 and work began on this one.
Doge Alvise Mocenigo II provided the funds for the façade and a contest was held, with Swiss-born architect Domenico Rossi’s design winning out over 11 other entries. This doge is buried in the center of the church – his tomb is rather funky with full-body skeletons on the sides and a grinning skull and crossbones at the bottom.
The façade is suitably magnificent for its Grand Canal location– it’s big, white, and richly decorated with sculpture. Some call it late Baroque, others call it neo-classical, Ruskin called it a “most ridiculous” example of the “Grotesque Renaissance” which is what he called the Baroque architecture that he hated so much.
The interior is clean and white with large windows letting in lots of light. This is the place to come for an overview of 18th century Venetian painting – there’s a bunch of it including an interesting cycle of paintings of the apostles. In 1722, a dozen of the leading artists of the time were each asked to paint an apostle – these twelve paintings hang on the side walls of the chancel and include works by Tiepolo (St. Bartholomew), Piazzetta (St. James), and Ricci (St. Peter).
My favorite work of art in this church is the oldest and it’s not even inside the church itself –it’s the angel over the door on the campanile (photos above). It’s 13th century and probably came from the older church.
My first visit to this church
October 2003 – it was my second trip to Venice, my first Chorus Pass, and I was just starting to get the “church bug.” I knew that the Biennale was going on at the Public Gardens, but I didn’t know how the Biennale spreads out all over Venice and you can be surprised by modern art in unexpected places.
Walking into San Stae and seeing “Falling Gardens” by Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger was truly a magical experience! We took our shoes off at the door and then went in and could lay around on this soft cushy white stuff on the floor and look at the garden above, which was all this colorful and interesting junk hanging from the ceiling. So wonderful! It's the first and only time I've been able to stretch out on the floor of a church. Most pews are uncomfortable and plus you have to crane your neck...I wish every church would have a little "lay down" area!
Here’s what it looked like (photo from the artists' website):
And I love the artists’ manifesto about their work:
The Doge (Mocenigo) needed a church so as to be able to have a monumental tomb built for himself, the church (San Staë) needed a saint so as to be able to be built, the saint (San Eustachio) needed a miracle so as to be pronounced a saint, the miracle needed a stag in order to be seen, and we built the garden for the reindeer.
I’ve visited this church again since that amazing sight and it paled by comparison. I wish they could have left the “Falling Garden” up forever! A couple more great photos of it here.
To visit this church
A Chorus Pass church so it’s open from 10-5 on Monday through Saturday.
A couple of books report that this church is deconsecrated but the Patriarch of Venice brochure says that Mass is celebrated here in the winter only.
One of John Singer Sargent's paintings of San Stae:
As you can see, Sargent painted the church but also part of the charming little building right next door, which is the Scuola dei Battioro e Tiraoro (guild of the drawers and beaters of gold) built in 1711.