The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, stands on the narrow finger of Punta della Dogana, in the sestiere of Dorsoduro. Commonly known as the “Salute”, it is part of the parish of the Gesuati and is the most recent of the so-called plague churches. It is located between the southern entrance to the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, at the Bacino di San Marco. This great baroque church is a highly visible landmark, when approaching the Piazza San Marco from the water. It also dominates the eastern part of the classic view across the basin from the Riva degli Shiavoni.
It is a vast, octagonal building with two domes of unequal size and a pair of picturesque bell-towers at the back. Built on a platform made of 1,000,000 wooden piles, it is constructed of Istrian stone and marmorino (brick covered with marble dust).
Santa Maria della Salute was built as a votive church to the Virgin Mary, to celebrate the end of the plague in 1630, which wiped out a third of the Venetian population. Designed by Baldassare Longhena, construction was finally completed in 1681; the year before his death. His claim was that it was a novel design in the form of a rotunda, unlike anything seen before in Venice. However, while novel in many ways, the design still shows the influence of Palladian classicism and the domes of Venice.
On completion, the Senate decided it would visit the church each year. On November 21st the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin (Festa della Madonna della Salute) is still celebrated and the city’s officials parade from San Marco to the Salute; for a service in gratitude for deliverance from the plague. This involved crossing the Grand Canal on a specially constructed pontoon bridge of boats and is still a major event in the calendar of Venice.
The design of the church, incorporates many references to the Mother of God. At the apex of the pediment stands a statue of the Virgin Mary, who presides over the building. The façade is decorated with figures of Saint George, Saint Theodore, the Evangelists (Mark, Mathew, Luke and John), the Prophets and Judith with the head of Holofernes.
The remarkable interior is octagonal with six radiating side chapels on the outer row and has its architectural elements demarcated by the coloration of the material. It is full of Marian symbolism; the great dome represents her crown, the cavernous interior her womb, the eight sides the eight points on her symbolic star.
The three altars to the right of the main entrance are decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, patroness of the church, by Luca Giordano; “The Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple”, “Assumption of Our Lady” and “Nativity of Our Lady”. The third altar to the left of the entrance hosts a painting by Titian titled “The Descent of the Holy Ghost”.
The Baroque high altar arrangement, designed by Longhena himself, shelters an iconic Byzantine Madonna and Child of the 12th or 13th century, known as Panagia Mesopantitissa (in Greek “Madonna the mediator” or “Madonna the negotiator”) and came from Candia in 1669 after the fall of the city to the Ottomans. The statuary group at the high altar, depicting “The Queen of Heaven expelling the Plague” (1670) is a theatrical Baroque masterpiece by the Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte. It originally held Alessandro Varotari’s painting of the Virgin.
Tintoretto contributed “Marriage at Cana” in the great sacristy, which includes a self-portrait. The most represented artist included in the church is Titian, who painted “St. Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch”, the altarpiece of the sacristy, as well as ceiling paintings of “David and Goliath”, “Abraham and Isaac and Cain and Abel” and eight tondi of “the eight Doctors of the Church and the Evangelists”; all in the great sacristy and the “Pentecost” in the nave.
The dome of the Salute was an important addition to the Venice skyline and soon became emblematic of the city, inspiring artists like Canaletto, J. M. W. Turner, John Singer Sargent, and the Venetian artist Francesco Guardi.
Kabbalah and the design of the Santa Maria della Salute
It has been claimed by some historians that the plan of the basilica was inspired by the design of the temple of Venere Physizoa, described in the verse romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed in Venice in 1499. Poliphilo’s “Dream of the Strife of Love”; is an extraordinary humanist romance that directly inspired the Gardens of Versailles, the Boboli in Florence and the celebrated Elephant-Obelisk in Rome by Bernini. Essentially it is about the spiritual quest of a passionate philosopher devoted to divine wisdom. It reveals that the best way to know God is though Nature, the divine creation.
Thus, the Basilica della Salute, is a place where devotion to the Virgin Mary overlaps with the ancient Veneti’s worship of the Goddess-Mother, Venus. The building is meant to remind followers that the health of the world, is to be sought solely in the strength of faith in Mary.
Firstly, there is the octagonal floor plan – the number 8 (symbol of Hope and Health), referring to the Stella Maris (Star of the Seas), an 8-pointed star. The name of this star is a reference to the Marialis Stella (Star of Mary); a title that the Carmelites gave to the Virgin, when they became established in Europe in the 12th C. The basilica’s dome symbolizes the virgins crown, with Mary’s statue on top.
The eight sides of the building, a lower cupola, altar and choir, add up to the number 11; a symbol of Strength – the strength of the Venetians faith in the Virgin that could deliver them from the plague.
Taking the basic unit of measure used, (in this case the passi is equal to 35.09 cm); it has been argued that the entire basilica is a design predicated on the numbers 8 and 11. For example the length of the basilica is 121 passi (11 squared), its width 88 passi (8×11), the octagonal sides each measure 44 passi (4×11) and the buttresses stand at a height of 66 passi (6×11). Even the foundations extend 88 passi (8×11) into the ground. The campo in front of the basilica is 44 passi (4×11) deep, the building is reached by 16 (8×2) steps. There are also 11 steps leading down to the water of the Grand Canal.
The sum of 8 and 11 is also symbolic. In the Jewish Kabbalah (tradition in Hebrew), it is the number associated with the Sun of Mary (Marialis Solis); which underlies the whole meaning of the church.
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