Ognissanti means “All Saints” which is a dizzying concept. It covers all the bases, for sure. And it’s a happy accident that I'm writing about this church today on All Saints’ Day!
The history of this church begins in the mid-15th century when a group of nuns from the convent of Santa Margherita on Torcello moved to Venice to escape the malaria epidemic overtaking that lagoon island. They established a small convent in a Dorsoduro neighborhood in the parish of San Trovaso.
The nuns brought a miracle-working image of the Madonna which attracted miracle-seekers giving alms, and soon the nuns had enough money to enlarge their convent and build a church. They first built a small wooden church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and All Saints (Vergine Maria e a Tutti i Santi) in 1472 and then later the church we see today, which was consecrated in 1586. The facade looks very similar in shape to another convent church built in the same century, Santa Croce on Giudecca.
Like many Venetian nuns, the Ognissanti sisters were not without scandal. Paolo Giordani (Venice) reports that in 1505, it was discovered that the abbess and several nuns were all pregnant by the same priest. Virgins of Venice shares another sad story. In 1610 the Patriarch of Venice visited the convent to investigate reports that some of the nuns were hoarding chickens in their living quarters so that they didn’t have to share the eggs. He ordered the abbess to slaughter all the chickens and serve them to the convent at large, as a reminder that all food was communal not personal property. Poor nuns, poor chickens!
I was standing under the barco (nuns' gallery) when I took the photo below.
In 1806, the religious complex was suppressed, and the church was stripped of its art treasures and closed. Its Coronation of the Virgin by Veronese was taken to the Accademia where it remains today. The nuns moved to the convent of SS. Biagio e Cataldo on Giudecca (that convent was later destroyed to build the Mulino Stucky factory).
Then in 1810, nuns from the demolished Capuchin convent in Castello moved to this convent and brought some new art. Later in the 19th century, the convent closed again and was converted into the Ospedale Giustinian, a geriatric hospital, and the church became its chapel. Today, the former hospital houses public health and social work offices, and clinics. In 2001, Giampaolo Onesto published a book about the restoration of this church.
Ognissanti is so pretty inside with lots to look at. I visited for evening Mass, and there were two Venetians in attendance, the priest, and me. Both of the Venetians got up to do readings during the service. The priest had good vibes, and the church is worn but warm. I’d like to visit again in the day time when the light is better – I walked around when Mass was over but couldn’t see the art very well.
The interior of the three chapels in the photo below are covered with some colorful frescoes, including one of the Last Supper above the high altar. Some photos of the frescoes are here and for a really good look inside Ognissanti, check out this video of a 2011 Mass. You can see the frescoes, some nice close-ups of the altars, and all the charming clutter inside this church.
Here’s another video of the Ognissanti choir performing Jacques Arcadelt's Ave Maria.
I didn’t visit the sacristy and it’s on my wish list since I read about it in Secret Venice. The sacristy is decorated with 17th century carvings brought from the island church of San Clemente in the late 19th century. The current priest of Ognissanti, Father Carolo, has written a book explaining the mystical symbolism of the designs in the inlaid wood.
The apse of the church faces Rio Tera Ognissanti. Whenever you see "rio tera" that means that you're walking where a canal was filled in. So at one time, this church had canals on two sides but today, only one.