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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice

What is Santa Maria dei Miracoli?

Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a 15th-century Catholic church in Venice that was built to house a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary.


Maria dei Miracoli

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli History

Santa Maria dei Miracoli (literally Saint Mary of the Miracles) is an astonishing Renaissance church in the heart of Venice, a building that the poet Ezra Pound called a ‘jewel box’. It’s also known as ‘the marble church’ for the abundance of marble cladding adorning both the interior and exterior of the building. Observing its ongoing construction, the German pilgrim Felix Fabri noted in 1484 that ‘no prince in Germany could afford such a building’. The English art critic John Ruskin defined it in 1853 as ‘the most interesting and finished example in Venice of the Byzantine Renaissance, and one of the most important in Italy of the cinque-cento style’.


In the 15th century the Amadi family, rich silk merchants from Tuscany, possessed a miraculous image of the Virgin in their palace in the nearby parish of Santa Marina. Due to its allegedly miraculous power, several citizens banded together to contribute to the purchase of land on which a church would be built to house the image and an adjoining convent to accommodate Franciscan nuns (who were enlisted to care for the painting). Unlike most Venetian churches, it is free-standing, bordered only by a canal and a narrow street. At the time, it was the only church apart from Saint Mark’s Basilica whose exterior was lavishly decorated with marble cladding in many different colours. It marks the transition in the city from the Gothic style to the architecture of the Renaissance. The entire project was executed in the 1480s under the surveillance of Pietro Lombardo, one of the leading sculptors and architects of the 15th century.


The church’s exterior is composed of two layers; the upper part is made of marble slabs separated by elegant arches, whereas the lower part is divided by columns. The use of polychrome marbles draws the eyes of passers-by, with multiple red crosses encapsulated within the yellow-white surface. The façade is sumptuous, with a 16th-century Virgin and Child by Giovanni Giorgio Lascaris presiding over the entrance. There are three orders of arcades from bottom to top, sheathed in different marbles, culminating in an elegant semicircle, enclosing the church, topped by statues representing Christ and two angels.


By contrast, the interior is surprisingly unadorned, but still strikingly beautiful with walls entirely lined with patterned marble panels. The gilded coffered ceiling was built at a later stage, and its 50 panels are decorated with images of prophets, patriarchs, and saints by a variety of early 16th-century artists. Beyond the exquisitely carved marble railing you’ll find elaborate sculptural decoration executed by the church’s architect, Pietro Lombardo, and his son Tullio. This wonderful decoration combines effortlessly with the coloured and textured surfaces to create a luxurious church that expresses both the piety and immense wealth of 15th-century Venice.


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