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Santa Maria Assunta

“Torcello is a reclaimed wilderness…Nature’s eternal youth smiles in the midst of these ruins. The air was balmy and only the sound of the cicadas disturbed the religious hush of the morning.” ~ George Sand


Santa Maria Assunta, the cathedral of Torcello, was founded in 639, rebuilt in 864 and again in 1008. What we see today is largely 11th century with a few mosaics and fragments from the earlier churches. In 1929, archeologists unearthed the altar from the 7th century church and returned it to the chancel during a restoration that removed some later Baroque additions (thank goodness they took that stuff away!).

I took only four photos inside this cathedral (and they are in my Torcello church cats post), but I did find some scanned photos to share. Since better writers than me have heaped praise on this amazing church, I’m going to let them help describe it.


John Ruskin noted that from the outside, this church looks more like “a refuge from an Alpine storm than a cathedral of a populous city” and he’s got a point. It’s one of those churches that takes you by surprise when you walk inside and see how gracious and beautiful it is. Ruskin praised its remarkable luminousness and says that overall, this church is "all that Christian architecture ought to express in every age..."

Ruskin also called it a “goodly temple-ship," a wonderful phrase that makes me laugh.


In The World of Venice, Jan Morris calls it the “most moving church in Christendom” and describes both its architectural and theological siginificance:

"To the west there extends the ribbed and vaulted architecture we call Gothic - Rome, Chartres, Cambridge and the monasteries of Ireland. To the east stand the domes: Mount Athos, Istanbul, the bulbous churches of Russia and the noble mosques of Cairo, Samarkand, Isfahan and India. On one side of Torcello is the Palace of Westminster, on the other the Taj Mahal.

It is a spiritual watershed too. At Torcello, the theologies overlap, and the rival ideas of Christianity met here, half-way between the old Rome and the New. The cathedral of Torcello is part Byzantine, part Gothic, partly eastern, partly western. It was built badly, by scared men in a hurry – some would say in a panic because they thought the end of the world would occur in the year 1000. It is simple and sophisticated at the same time, bold and tremulous too.”

The Interior

In the chancel, a set of ancient stairs leads up to the bishop’s throne which is surrounded by these other stone seats, like a little amphitheater. Above the throne are mosaics of saints and the Virgin Theotokos on a gold background.


Hugh Honour’s description from The Companion Guide to Venice:

“The interior – one of the most poignantly beautiful in the world – has a strangely marine appearance. The grey moiré silk of the marble columns and paneling of the main apse seem to have been patterned by the wash of waves, while the white capitals and other carvings appear to have been fashioned and blanched by the pounding of breakers; there is even a touch of seaweed green about the base of the columns – as if they had been standing for centuries in an ocean cave.”

Byzantine carvings of lions and peacocks~




As so often happens on the Internet, while looking for something else I discovered that the Patriarch of Venice himself has a Flickr site with lots of church photos and even photos taken during Mass! Makes me feel less guilty about the interior church photos I’ve taken over the years. :)

He celebrated Mass in the Torcello cathedral as part of its Millenario celebration, and some nice photos of the cathedral interior are here.


The Mosaics

This whole church is blessed by the Virgin Theotokos, Mother of God or The God Bearer (and her charisma doesn’t really come across well in photographs). While there are many other beautiful things to see in this church, you’re always aware of her while you are inside. She rules the place, no doubt about it.

Honour described her as “one of the great achievements of Byzantine art, an ethereal figure in whom dignity and an almost infinite gentleness are combined.” Morris called her “the noblest memorial of the lagoon” and adds:

“Greek craftsman made it…and there are some who think that the Venetians, through all their epochs of splendour and success, never created anything quite so beautiful.”


On the West Wall opposite the Virgin is the large and epic mosaic of the Last Judgment, sometimes called the Doomsday Mosaic. It’s fascinating and gruesomely charming with piles of skulls and other scary scenes in the lower part where we do not want to go. Maybe it’s a character defect but whenever I see a Last Judgment, I always find the images of hell more interesting than those of paradise. Here are a couple of details:


An angel participating in the Last Judgment~


Another poster for the thousandth anniversary celebration~


"And there is something especially touching in our finding the sunshine thus freely admitted into a church built by men in sorrow....all is fair and bright and intended evidently to be regarded in hopefulness and not with terror." ~ John Ruskin


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Comments (18)

Love it! What a beautiful church! I adore the Mosaics.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, this is such a wonderful post. I love all the beautiful mosaics. I think you describe the wonderful art, history and churches in Venice beautifully. This is a lovely church and Torcello was my favorite of the two islands that I visited.

How interesting that the Patriach of Venice has a Flicker Album too. I will definitely have to visit his site.

Thank you so much for this wonderful read this morning Annie.

Candi, thank you and I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving this week.

Kathy, thanks! I hope you are having a great time in Scotland.

The Patriarch just posted some photos from the La Salute festa which happened this week (Nov. 21). I know you attended that a couple of years ago. It's really interesting to see his photos.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, thanks for the tip. I just checked out his photos. Beautiful. I loved looking at the La Salute Fiesta photos. Made me wish I had gone there in the evening because it looks so nice with the candles. Wonderful photos. Thanks so much for the find and link. Have a great evening.


Annie, I had no idea that this church was such a treasure trove of beautiful works! I love Jan Morris's description, or summary, that it is the “most moving church in Christendom”

I am gobsmacked by the mosaics. I really had no idea there were so many here, and apparently in great condition.

I'm also more intrigued by images of hell than of heaven -- maybe because it seems there's just so much more going on!

The carvings are also v. beautiful, the lions don't look so scarey but I feel bad for the little bunnies in the corners!

Sandra, the bunnies are funny looking aren't they? The lions look goofy and make me wonder if the artist had ever seen one in person. Glad to know that I'm not the only person who finds hell more interesting. :)

You'd love this church! The mosaics are wonderful -not as many as San Marco which is good in a way, because it's easier to see these. I love San Marco but it's just so much!


I am so enjoying your posts on Torcello. We remembered to bring our little binoculars when we visited in September, and it made such a difference. The mosaics are impressive no matter what, but even moreso when you can see the detail. And some of the details are just cutely amusing (or amusingly cute), such as the images of the earth before judgment: there's a leg sticking out of a whale here, a hand out of a lion's mouth there, and so on, and not in a gruesome way, just a matter of fact this-is-what-happens-to-bodies-after-death-and-before-the-final-judgment.
One thing that was very exciting for me when we first went was to see the peacock panel from the rood screen that you have posted. In the sixties, my father was in India and had a local woodworker carve a panel modelled on this very one. When I first saw it, I was flabbergasted. But it makes sense, since my father was always interested in Byzantine art and had commissioned a couple of icon paintings based on famous models. I couldn't ask him about the peacock panel, as he is no longer alive. My mother kindly let me take the panel the last time I was home, as I had a special connection to it.
Again, what a treat it is to read your site.


Oh that looks like such a beautiful space. I would never have suspected it was "built badly, by scared men in a hurry"! I really like the mosiacs too, but the Byzantine carvings are amazing, especially the lions. So intricate, I am always in awe that artists can work such magic with stone.

I'm loving your Torcello series, Annie :)


Hi Annie, Did you buy the large postcard of the Last Judgement? The Holy family appear bottom left and, unusually, Joseph is holding baby Jesus. Of course I may have wrongly identified the family. Tell me what you think. Andrew

Thanks Annie for the great post! I MUST go back and spend more time in that beautiful church (and bring my glasses to observe those amazing mosaics!).
Have a nice week,
Take care,


Thanks everyone for your comments.

Marie, thanks so much. I've often wished I had binoculars, not just in churches but walking around and seeing paterae and shrines high up. I might need to invest in a pair. That is so cool that your father got a copy of the peacocks made in India! I bet you treasure that.

Anne, the "built badly" thing was interesting to me too. I think about all the effort that went into hauling all those materials to the island.

Andrew, I didn't buy that postcard and now I wish I had. None of my books have the complete mosaic, just details. I'll look some more and see if I can find the family.

AnnaLivia, thanks! I'm looking forward to visiting this church again too. I got distracted with the cats and don't think I saw everything. :)

Love that interior... beautiful colors and details! The Virgin is quite stunning... one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. I enjoy the quotes and your words too. Thanks so for sharing Torcello. Carol

Annie, this is a wonderful post of an incredibly beautiful church. The carvings and the mosaics are amazingly beautiful. Loved reading all the different descriptions, in particular the one by Honour in which he describes the somewhat marine appearance of the interior of S.M. Assunta.

How cool that the Patriarch of Venice has a Flicker site! I feel very uncomfortable taking photos inside churches, especially during Mass. After seeing the photos of the Mass during the festa of La Salute, I will press the shutter button without any feelings of guilt.

Hope you are enjoying the holiday weekend. What a wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving, with the cats in the Refuge. I’m sure it was a very special day for you.

What an amazing find! I love how some churches can look so plain on the outside and then be so incredible inside. Love the mosaics. Thanks for sharing.

Carol, she really is one of the most beautiful I've seen too. She gives the whole church a sacred feeling.

Maria, thanks and I hope you had a great holiday too. I was so surprised to see those photos taken during Mass too!

I had a blast with the cats at the Refuge especially since it was a semi-warm day, and they were enjoying life soaking up some sun.

Girasoli, I can see why some people might skip this church when they see it from the outside. It's really surprising when you go into it.

How did I miss this one. Venice is one of my favorite cities in the world. I used to live about 40 Miles North in Conegliano and I loved to go down to Venezia whenever I could. Great photos of a wonderful city.

How did I miss the Santa Maria Assunta? It's a nice place! Lovely photos! The place is very very interesting!

That image of the Madonna must have an incredible presence in the church. It looks like a place with such an old-world feel.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 23, 2009 11:44 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Vere da pozzo (Torcello).

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