The Capella del Santo Chiodo (Chapel of the Holy Nail) in the church of San Pantalon is such a wonderful little place. Admission to the church itself is free, but they ask for a one euro donation to visit this chapel. It's well worth it not just to see the altar that housed one of Venice’s most revered relics but also because of the amazing treasure trove of early Venetian art that’s tucked away back there.
Let’s start with the relic, the holy nail, which began its Venetian journey in the now demolished church and convent of Santa Chiara (it was in the sestiere of Santa Croce where the Piazzale Roma police station is now). How the Franciscan nuns of Santa Chiara came into possession of this relic is another charming Venetian story.
In 1270, a pilgrim visited Santa Chiara and gave the nuns a box and a ring, instructing them to keep the box safe without opening it, and to only give the box to someone who came along with an identical ring. Three hundred years passed, no one came, and I guess the nuns couldn’t take the suspense anymore and decided to open the box where they found a sacred nail used in the Crucifixion. A letter in the box revealed that the pilgrim who had brought the holy nail to the nuns was St. Louis IX, King of France, who had gotten the nail from Sant’ Elena (who had traveled to the Holy Land and found the True Cross). None of the dates in this story add up, by the way, but no worries, it’s still a great story. All that matters is that Venice ended up with an incredible relic.
When Santa Chiara was demolished, the sacred nail and its Gothic altar were moved to the church of San Pantalon. The altar is fantastic especially the little niche housing an exquisite early 14th century carving of the Deposition scene (top photo, you can click to see it larger).
I couldn’t see the holy nail and thought that perhaps it was only revealed on Holy Days, but then my UK blog friend, Andrew, told me that when he visited San Pantalon and asked to see the nail, someone told him that it had been stolen!
On an adjacent wall is a glorious painting, Coronation of the Virgin (1444) by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d'Alemagna (brothers-in-law who were both part of the Vivarini workshop and often painted collaboratively). This painting was commissioned for San Pantalon’s high altar where it hung for a couple of centuries. I guess than in the 17th century when the church was rebuilt and “went for Baroque,” they moved it since it’s small and would be lost in the huge and imposing altar that’s there now. Fine with me, it’s much easier to see in this little chapel. This painting was restored by Save Venice in 1996 and it looks wonderful.
And then on the opposite wall are three paintings by Paolo Veneziano. In the middle is the lovely and haunting Madonna of the Poppy (1325). I love her!
A few more photos from the chapel are below the jump (click “continue reading”).