Today I want to honor the centuries’ old ties between Byzantium and Venice, by kneeling in front of the “Mesopanditissa” Madonna, a 12th or 13th century Byzantine icon that was brought to Venice in 1669, after Candia (Herakleion) fell to the Ottoman Turks. The picture is kept in the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (Holy Mary of the Health). Lets start with the historical background.
Santa Maria della Salute is one of the jewels of Venice. Baldassare Longhena was 32 years old when he won a competition in 1631 to design a shrine honoring the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in the space of two years (1629-30) killed 47,000 residents, or one-third the population of the city. Outside, this ornate white Istrian stone octagon is topped by a colossal cupola with snail-like ornamental buttresses and a baroque facade; inside are a polychrome marble floor and six chapels.
The Byzantine icon above the main altar has been venerated as the Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health) since 1670, when Francesco Morosini brought it here from Crete. The icon and other holy relics, were brought to Venice by Morosini when Crete fell to the Ottoman Turks.
It was the jewel of the Church of Saint Titus in the center of Candia, today’s Irakleion. Morosini also brought to Venice the remains of Saint Titus. They were kept in Saint Mark’s Basilica until 1966, when they were returned to Crete.
Above it is a sculpture showing Venice on her knees to the Madonna as she drives the wretched plague from the city.
I must confess that the baroque sculptures surrounding the Madonna did not impress me, but they are not in nay way obstructing the view of the magnificent icon.
The Madonna is serene, understanding, can absorb the pain of the whole world. The Holy Child is contemplative.
The icon is at home in the magnificent Church. It stands next to Titian, Giordano, Tintoretto, like they are the most natural companion.
This is the glory of Byzantium, glory that remains alive and strong in Venice. More on the subject will follow.