This is a “must see” church, and don’t let the fact that it’s been under-going a comprehensive restoration for many years stop you from visiting. Every time I’ve visited, something new has been unveiled, and the restoration work being done by Save Venice is fantastic. I look forward to the day when all the work is completed, and we can see this church as a whole. It’s a great place to immerse yourself in the Venetian High Renaissance and the work of Veronese, who decorated San Sebastiano with over 50 oil paintings and frescoes.
This religious complex was founded in 1393 by monks who were followers of St. Jerome. It began with a monastery, a hospice, and a small oratory dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. In 1455, the oratory was rebuilt, became a church, and was rededicated to St. Sebastian in response to the plague epidemic of 1464.
It’s a mystery as to why they rebuilt the church again only a few decades later but they did, and that’s the church we see today, built in the early 16th century. Shortly after the completion of the church, the monks commissioned a 27-year-old artist from Verona to decorate the sacristy. They were happy with his work, and Veronese continued to paint in San Sebastiano for the next 25 years.
Paulo Caliari (Veronese) was born in Verona in 1528 and began his painting career there; he died in Venice in 1588 and is buried in San Sebastiano. There’s a story that he took refuge in the San Sebastiano monastery after killing a rival, perhaps as part of a love triangle, but most sources say that there’s simply no evidence that this story is true. Perhaps a jealous fellow artist started the rumor after the young artist from out of town received this commission? The real reason that Veronese got the San Sebastiano commission might be that the abbot of the monastery at that time was also from Verona. See his paintings in this church and elsewhere here.
San Sebastiano is an easy saint to recognize – young, handsome, and half-naked with a bunch of arrows in his chest. This interesting article notes that, in the period from 1450-1530, St. Sebastian was the fifth most popular saint in Venice based on the number of times he appeared in altar paintings in churches (the top four were Mary, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Peter). His popularity can be attributed to his healing abilities. San Sebastiano is one of several Venetian churches dedicated to saints who were believed to be able to offer healing and relief from the plague; other “plague churches” are San Giobbe, Redentore, San Rocco, and Santa Maria della Salute.
The campanile is a nice one, and on its side is one of my favorite pieces of bell tower sculpture, an 11th century Byzantine cross with kissing love birds.
San Sebastiano is Veronese’s church, for sure, but there’s also a lovely and sweet painting of San Nicolo by Titian in one of the chapels.
There are always things to look forward to seeing in Venice (next time!), and I can’t wait to see the restored ceiling paintings and the early 16th century floor of glazed majolica tiles in the Annunciation Chapel. The San Sebastiano restoration is supposed to be completed next year (2013).
To visit this church:
San Sebastiano is a Chorus Pass church. Visiting hours are Monday-Saturday 10-5.
Mass Times: Daily 8:30 am; Sunday 11 am
From "Venice, World Cultural Guide" by Terisio Pignatti~
"One of the greatest pictorial cycles of the sixteenth century...is the marvelous series of frescoes and canvases by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) in San Sebastiano, a small church which is more or less his own personal museum and includes work from his youthful period (sacristy 1533) to his maturity (ceiling, frescoes of the choir, c. 1560) and canvases in the presbytery (1570). A visit to San Sebastiano makes up for many other works destroyed or carried off to the main galleries of the world.
Here Veronese's style found its perfect formulation. The aim of his painting was not the idyllic representation of reality...nor its visionary transfiguration, it was the exaltation of an abundance of energy and joy. One need only look at the ceiling to feel all the rapture of Veronese's world. The young Esther goes up into a colonnaded portico...dressed in the most joyous hues ever seen in Venice, in a bright, clear range of colour absolutely characteristic of Veronese.
Anticipating modern theories of the decomposition of light, Veronese instinctively discovered the increase in luminosity deriving from the juxtaposition of two complementary colours. In this way, his reds and blues, yellows and violets create on the canvas myriad faceted planes of light, with an extraordinary effect of unreality and intensity. Local colours take on reflections of the colours that are next to them: black is abolished, and the shadows are coloured so that luminosity is greater than that of reality itself."
Titian's San Nicolo (1563). I love the expression on his face. He radiates kindness.