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Madonna Nikopeia

This week's PhotoHunt theme is "stones."

Here's a Venetian mystery concerning precious stones and a beautiful icon of the Madonna.

The Madonna Nikopeia can be found in the Basilica di San Marco. The Venetians love her and even when the Basilica is filled with tourists and seems more like a museum than a church, you will see people praying to the Nikopeia in her chapel to the left of the high altar where St. Mark lies. I always visit her soon after I arrive in Venice - she's one of my favorite things in that city.

She came to Venice in 1204 as one of the many treasures the Venetians stole from Constantinople when they sacked that city during the infamous Fourth Crusade. Even before she arrived in Venice, she was believed to work miracles and was much revered by the Byzantines who would carry her along as they marched into battle (Nikopeia means "bringer of victory"; it's sometimes spelled Nicopeia or Nikopoeia).

Legend has it that she was painted by St. Luke.

Jan Morris wrote,

"the Nikopeia, the most holy prize of empire. If she served the Byzantine emperors well and long, she served the Venetian Republic better and longer. The Venetians adopted her, like the Byzantines, as their Madonna of Victory; before her image supplicatory masses were held at the beginning of wars, masses of thanksgiving after victories."

For several years, I wondered about her jewelry and its story. The photo below shows what she looks like today. There are precious stones embedded in the frame around the icon, but none on the icon itself.

Madonna Nikopeia

But up until about 1980 or so, she looked like this (the image was adorned with many gem stones and pearls, votive offerings from Venetians whose prayers she had answered).

What is that large blue stone above her head? Gorgeous! It looks like she's wearing a diamond necklace and even Baby Jesus has a necklace.

Madonna Nikopeia

At some point, the jewelry was removed from the icon and moved into the Basilica's Treasury where it is on display. Behind plexiglass, unfortunately for photographers!

Madonna Nikopeia

Why did they remove the jewelry? It was a mystery to me, but not long ago I might have found the answer while reading Jan Morris' "The Venetian Empire - A Sea Voyage".

Morris writes that in 1979, the Nikopeia's jewels were stolen by two young Italians (from the mainland, not from Venice) who managed to hide at closing time and get themselves locked inside the church overnight. They rushed out the door with the gem stones when the Basilica opened the next morning.

The thieves were later caught and the jewels were returned. My guess is that the Basilica decided to move them into the Treasury for safe keeping instead of returning them to the icon. And they must have restored the icon which was probably damaged when the jewelry was removed.

Jan Morris also shares a great personal story about the theft:

"I happened to be in Venice on the day of the theft and went along to the Basilica to attend the Mass of repentance and supplication that the Patriarch immediately held. Never was history so poignantly played out. A profound sense of sadness filled the fane, nuns sighed and priests blew their noses heavily, as they mourned the desecration of that particularly cherished piece of stolen property."

Madonna Nikopeia

Thanks for visiting and have a good weekend.

See a list of upcoming Saturday Photo Hunting themes on Gattina's website here.

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Comments (12)

Susie L:

Absolutely fascinating Annie, I had no knowledge of this icon, or her history. I will definitely check this out next time I am in Venice.

wow, fascinating. i cannot wait to see venice this fall.

Fascinating information and photographs. Happy Weekend.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, I really enjoyed your post and learning about this beautiful icon in San Marco. It looks like the colors are more pronounced in your first photo and although the jewels have been removed for safety, it is still so beautiful.

Thanks you so much for sharing. I hope I can see this treasured icon in person some day.

Have a great weekend.

Those are very precious stones. Thanks for this informative post, it has a fascinating history.

Interesting take on this week theme. cool art work, very pretty.

Coffee is on


I wished I had all these stones !


I know this icon well but had no idea of its recent history. I'm not sure whether I prefer her adorned or plain.

What an absolutely rivetting story! Good detective work, Annie!

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Andrew, I'm not sure whether I prefer her with jewels or without either! I like her both ways.


I'm always so impressed with your knowledge of Venice (and research skills!) The photos are glorious. I feel the same as you, not sure if I prefer her with or without the jewels. Great story. I hope to see this Madonna in person someday!

I have some news to share...I've finished my Master of Divinity degree, woohoo!! Hard to believe three years have gone by already, isn't it?! I still have an 8 month internship before I can be ordained, but I'm really excited to have the MDiv under my belt. (I'll post a link to my grad research presentation as soon as the school puts the videos up on youtube.)

Have a great week!! :)

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