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Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta

Venice's First Cathedral

Interior of basilica

More than St Mark’s, or any other Venetian building, Santa Maria Assunta, the city's first cathedral on the island of Torcello shows the difficult balance between Byzantine and Italian styles that was sought in local architecture on the threshold of the Middle Ages.

Begun in 639 AD, the church assumed its current form in the early 11th-century: a typical Latin three-aisled basilica, more Italian than Greek. Details as the blind arcading on the façade and apses and the massive, square campanile, a prototype for many later ones in Venice, suggest that it is the work of Lombard masons, who travelled throughout Italy in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, there are some unusual features: stone shutters on stone hinges over the side windows, and a baptistry set squarely in front of the main portal – only the foundations of which survive today.

Inside, the mood shifts abruptly towards the east, with an exquisite 13th-century mosaic of the Madonna and Child in the apse, a severe but compelling figure with the deepest Byzantine eyes, alone on a broad gold ground. Beneath, there is a mosaic row of the 12 apostles, and below that a marble veneer facing in symmetrical patterns. The Roman sarcophagus near the high altar was recycled for the remains of St Heliodorus, first bishop of Altinum; to the left, the foundation stone of the original cathedral bears an inscription from 639 AD, the oldest in Venice.

There is more fine work in every corner of the cathedral: an intricate coloured marble pavement, and beautiful capitals on the columns lining the nave that seem to have come from ancient Altinum but are really originals from the 11th century. Between two of these columns, on the right side of the nave, a wooden trap door allows a peek at a small segment of the original mosaic floor.

Another series of mosaics, in the right transept, shows four angels supporting a crown and the lamb, representing Christ; below, Christ appears with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.

Some of the best work is around the recently restored iconostasis (altar screen) and pulpit: early fragments taken from the original cathedral, like the relief of the two peacocks sipping from the fountain of life (an allegory of the Eucharist). Look carefully and you will find some genuine oddities – on the left side, Ixion, grandfather of the centaurs from Greek mythology, stretched on his wheel. More wheels appear on the opposite side of the screen, winged wheels said to represent Occasion, the counterpart to Fortune, the chance that can be seized.

Best of all is the spectacular Apotheosis of Christ and the Last Judgement covering the entire west wall, the largest and most memorable mosaic in Venice. Probably begun in the 12th century, the work was heavily restored in the 19th. Few mosaics reveal with such candour the Byzantine mixture of intellectuality and imagination; it’s an ensemble of obsessive organization, with hosts of angels and devils in tidy symmetry. It is divided into six levels:

1 On top, the Crucifixion, with the Virgin and St John.

2 The Descent into Hell, with Jesus flanked by Michael and Gabriel (like all Byzantine archangels, they wear the dress of high officials at the court in Constantinople). Jesus treads under blue demons, and welcomes Adam from the tomb. The shower of broken locks and keys is another common Byzantine image for the Last Day, when all earthly bonds are loosed.

Last Judgment Mosaic

3 Christ in Glory, in His mandorla, with the Virgin, Baptist, Apostles and Saints.

4 The Beasts and Fishes Give up their Human Prey to the call of angelic music; also the mystic etoimasia, the Preparation of the Throne. Ancient Greek art sometimes portrayed the same empty throne as a symbol of Zeus, only with a pair of thunderbolts on it instead of the Gospels.

5 Michael Weighs the Souls in a Scale (more ancient symbolism; this was the job of Minos and Rhadamanthys in antiquity, and traceable to Egypt). The virtuous elect look up with expectant faces, while angels cast down the damned (many princes and clerics among them, along with Muslims in turbans) to the blue demons. The devil himself appears.

6 On the left, Mary Comforts the Children while St Peter (with banner) guards the Gates of Paradise; right, the interesting Tortures of the Damned: fire, dismemberment, water and hunger, with serpents floating through the eye-sockets of floating skulls.

Recently subject to a lengthy and superb restoration, the Basilica’s campanile, is discreetly set apart in its overgrown garden. Don't miss it; since the restorers thought to put in ramps rather than stairs, it’s a relatively untaxing climb, and well worth it for the views over the varying greens of Torcello and the lagoon. Near by is the small, closed Oratorio di San Marco, said to mark the spot where the Venetian merchants first landed with St Mark's body.

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Hours Mar-Oct 10.30am-6pm; Nov-Feb 10am-5pm

Adm €6, €5 reduced (under 6 and EU citizens over 65 free) or €8 combined with the Museo di Torcello, or €12 for the basilica, tower and museum

vaporetto: Torcello

+39 041 730119

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by PD Art, seier+seier