The Santa Maria Assunta

Path to the Santa Maria Assunta      Path

Path to the Santa Maria Assunta  Torcello
photos: Richard Mortel

The island’s canals silted up due to a twist of Mother Nature, destroying a flourishing economy. As a result, neither of the island’s two churches were ever rebuilt in a more contemporary style

View from the Campanile of the Santa Maria Assunta       Torcello Aerial

View from Campanile  Santa Maria Assunta Torcello
photo: Zairon

Santa Maria Assunta and the Santa Fosca

Santa Maria Assunta Santa Fosca Torcello
photo: David Nicholls

Santa Maria Assunta

Santa Maria Assunta Torcello
photo: Brad Hostetler

Santa Maria Assunta

Santa Maria Assunta facade Torcello
photo: Till Niermann

The cathedral Santa Maria Assunta (Assumption of the Virgin Mary) dates from the 7th century but was rebuilt in the 9th and 11th century. The original church had only three naves and just one round apse (two more were added later). In other words, a typical early Christian Roman basilica that can also be found in Grado and Ravenna. Not much remains of the 7th century baptistery, just the circumference of the wall and a few bases of columns. The original baptistery (eight columns and a dome) was located at the front of the cathedral (floor plan of Santa Maria Assunta and Santa Fosca).

The baptistery (reconstruction) was for the most part based on the Lateran baptistery in Rome. An inscription was discovered during the 1895 restoration of Santa Maria Assunta. It showed that the church was dedicated to Mary and founded during the reign of emperor Heraclius. Isac, the patriarch of Ravenna, had commissioned its construction in 639. The floorplan has for the most part been preserved, and yet there is little visual evidence of the original materials. The wall of the central apse and the lower part of the entrance wall date from the 7th century.

Santa Maria Assunta Campanile Torcello
photos: David Nicholls and José Luiz

Campanile and apse

The original floor lies beneath the present one. In 1929, the original altar was discovered during excavations and restored to its original location.  The church was renovated in 864 under Bishop Adeodato, as stated in the chronicles of John the Deacon. The two side apses and the crypt were built after 864 and the outer wall probably also dates from this period. Santa Maria Assunta acquired its current exterior in 1008 under bishop Orso Orseolo, who later became doge. The floor was raised during this period. Windows were added to the upper part of the south wall, adding one clerestory to the nave. These upper windows in the south wall still have the original stone hinges that the wooden shutters are attached too. The arches of the colonnade are the stone arches from the 11th century. Two capitals on the right hand side of the nave were reused.

The interior is quite austere, in marked contrast with the San Marco. The concha of the apse features a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Child.

Santa Maria Assunta       Nave      Choir screen

Santa Maria Assunta  interior Torcello
photos: Sailko

Apse mosaic

Santa Maria Assunta  Mary mosaic Torcello
photo: Sailko

Right aisle      Left aisle

Santa Maria Assunta  right aisle Torcello
photo: Eric Parker

Right aisle apse       Vaults       Mosaic Christ

Christ among the archangels Michael Gabriel Nicolas, Ambrose, Augustin, Martin

Santa Maria Assunta  right apse mosaic Christ Torcello
photos: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro; vault: Richard Mortel

When we’re in Santa Maria Assunta, we will focus on the unique mosaics on the Apocalypse.

Last Judgement

photo: Jim Forest

Crucifixion of Jesus      Christ in Limbo

Santa Maria Assunta Apocalyps detail: mosaic Crucifixion
photo: Jim Forest
Santa Maria Assunta Apocalyps mosaic Torcello

Apocalys      Mosaic wall       Christ and Empty Throne
“Why is this mosaic so special?
On the lower right side, we see Hell in its most disgusting appearance ever. Angels pierce their hayforks into human bodies, black devils are flying around. This Hell is a Paradise for Byzantine Art lovers. The atrocities depicted here are not seen anywhere else. At the bottom of the scene countless skulls are floating around. Jaws are smirking and squalid wormlike creatures are creeping out of eye sockets. Body parts circle around: hands, feet, skulls, bones. The intriguing question is how the artist could put such unusual pictures in these mosaics. Probably craftsmen from Constantinople were at work here. They were highly qualified specialists who brought a rich array of imaginative power. But what drove them to depict snakes, legs and bones all over the place? Text: Annet Withagen
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God       Adam and Eve venerating the Gospel and the Cross

photos: Jim Forest

“The twelfth century was not a lucky period for the people living “around the lagoon. For instance, we know that in this period the island of Torcello turned into a swamp. Many people died by diseases like malaria. These circumstances possibly play a part. Moreover, Sant’ Ariano, an island near Torcello, was an ossuary. For ages, bones dug up from the San Michele cemetery were brought to Sant’ Ariano. If Sant’ Ariano was already an ossuary in the twelfth century, then bones that were found there may have inspired the artists. The Last Judgment of Santa Maria Assunta may well have reflected the geographic location.”  Text: Annet Withagen

photo: Jim Forest

Unfortunately, entire sections of the mosaics were removed in the 19th century and replaced with copies. When leaving the church, the visitor was subtly reminded to remember the Day of Judgement. Very few could read, but the images, arranged like a comic strip, were all too well understood.

Day of Judgement

Santa Maria Assunta Apocalyps mosaic:  Judgement day Torcello
photo: Jim Forest

Continuation Venice day 1: The Santa Fosca