On a hot August afternoon I took the vaporetto across the lagoon to Venice. I was on a mission to explore the Church of Madonna del’ Orto an imposing brick built church on the northern side of the city. I’ve always liked red brick as a building material, warm and practical and solid. The facade of the church has pointed gables and is quite Gothic in appearance. I noticed St Christoper occupying the plinth directly above the door and a large, very heavy semi-circle of porphyry stone, securely supported, I hoped, on a pair of Corinthian columns. Time to discover what lies within….
INTENSE HEAT – Moving from the intense heat and humidity of a Venetian summer’s day into the cool, shadowy interior of the church was a welcome relief. I started absorbing the interior of the church; the columns, central nave, side chapels and paintings. First to catch my eye was a painting of John the Baptist and Saints. I can never remember which saint is which, but the information leaflet helpfully informed me that they were, Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul. Jerome is an interesting one – he’s always depicted as being ancient and with a very long and unpleasant beard (perhaps he’s supposed to be scholarly – don’t know I’ll have to look that up). However I loved the composition of the painting with John the Baptist looking very inspired and devoted as he gazes up to the heavens. The artist Cima di Conegliano, was a local painter from the Venetian countryside. Nowadays the town of Conegliano, his home town, is the heart and soul of the vineyard area that makes prosecco sparkling wine. The liquid gold of the 21st century. However Cima di Conegliano was long before prosecco – he was a contemporary of artist Giovanni Bellini – one of the most famous of the Venetian painters of the 16th century. I immediately started comparing mentally, the John the Baptist painting in front of me, with a Bellini painting of the Madonna and Saints, painted just a few years later. In fact I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with the Bellini painting, I can’t pass through the Campo of San Zaccaria without popping into the Church of San Zaccaria for a quick fix of Bellini’s Madonna and Saints.
TWO PAINTINGS – The construction of both paintings with John the Baptist and the Madonna in elevated positions on each canvas, surrounded by attentive and learned biblical characters suggests both an audience and also a friendship and support group. Each painting has a main character, the others create an entourage or loyal following. After all where is a religious group, any religious group without the congregation and supporters. The fancy carved columns in both paintings are very similar and intricate. Even the Venetian countryside in the background is very familiar with green trees and gentle rolling hills. One question that I ask myself is this one – Why is the Madonna not here in the Church of Madonna del’ Orto and why isn’t John the Baptist in San Zaccaria, one of the oldest churches in Venice and the church dedicated to San Zaccaria – John the Baptist’s dad. The plot thickens – once more I’ll have to look it up! Furthermore I’d like to know if Cima (we are on first name terms now) and Bellini knew each other – they must have done….
ST CHRISTOPHER – Next to the painting of John the Baptist is a lovely large canvas of St Christopher, carrying the child Jesus to safety. I start to spot a theme here. A large statue of St Christopher adorning the facade of the church and a full size canvas inside of the same saint. This is right up my street of course, Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, so he’s my patron saint. Christopher is portrayed as a guide and helper, a kindly friend in the wilderness. Later when I get home I realise that the Madonna del’ Orto Church was originally dedicated to St Christopher hence the statue outside and the painting inside. Later it was rededicated to the Madonna following the miraculous appearance of a Madonna statue in the garden (orto) next door. So that explains it!
ART HISTORIANS – Art historians will tell you that the Madonna del’ Orto Church is the church of Tintoretto, another famous Venetian painter, who is also buried here. I glanced at his tomb and a couple of his paintings, but wasn’t sufficiently engaged to examine them. Instead I made my way back along the other side of the church through a series of side chapels each paid for and decorated by various ducal families of Venice. For centuries Venice was a Republic (almost a thousand years actually). During that time the head of state was called ‘The Doge’ which translates most easily into English as ‘Duke’. I couldn’t help smiling to myself because quite a few of the ‘ducal families’ were represented here; Vendramin, Contarini, Morosini and Loredan. They had clearly been competing in each chapel for the grandest and most elaborate decorations. My favourite was a ‘Temple of the Worthies’ selection of portrait busts (probably 19th century) of the illustrious Contarini family members.
SURPRISINGLY – one or two chapels further on I glanced at a painting that literally stopped me in my tracks. It amazed me – I was transfixed. It was a painting of ‘Tobias and the Angel’ by none other than Titian, probably the most famous 16th century painter in Venice of his time. The painting dating from 1530 shows Tobias, a young boy, accompanied by an angel. Tobias is carrying a fish and is looking attentively at a winged angel who leads him on his way. The painting is hanging in the small Vendramin Chapel, with no fanfare, no warning, no explanation. That’s Venice – filled to the brim with world class art. In The Louvre this painting would have it’s own personal security guard. In Washington DC it would be behind glass. Here in Venice it is hanging, casually on the wall of a side chapel with a tiny label detailing the artist, date and subject. That’s it, nothing more.
TOBIAS AND THE ANGEL – The story of Tobias and the Angel is enchanting and easy to remember – it was a very popular happy-ending tale in the days when life was tough and brutal. The story is an ancient one and pre-dates Christianity by several hundred years. A young boy called Tobias sets off on a dangerous journey to collect some money owed to his father Tobit. Tobit is blind and urgently needs the money to support his family. So Tobias bravely sets off to a distant land. During the journey he is accompanied by his loyal dog and a stranger who helps him, later the stranger is revealed to be an angel. At one point Tobias and the angel have to cross the River Tigris, Tobias loses his footing as he wades through the water. He struggles to regain his balance in the surging torrent of the river. However he survives and in the struggle also manages to catch a fish! The two travellers gut and eat the fish, but at the angel’s request they keep the heart, liver and gall bladder and store them in a special dish (usually depicted being carried in the right hand of the angel). Later in the story Tobias uses the gall bladder to cure his father’s blindness. The liver and heart are burned to rid Sarah, the future wife of Tobias, of the demons that haunt her. So all in all a happy ending. In some versions of the story the angel announces his true identity to Tobias – in others he is simply a friendly travelling companion.
TEN YEARS LATER – Titian painted ‘Tobias and the Angel’ again. This time the painting was much more lavish and colourful. The angel was upgraded to the Archangel Raphael, the fish and the dog are still included in the scene. However the richness of the clothing of both angel and boy imply affluence and success in a way that was completely missing a decade earlier. The story of ‘Tobias and the Angel‘ was so popular in the 16th century that there are many different versions of the same subject to consider. The combination of bravery, angelic presence and a happy ending seems to have been the perfect selection of ingredients for a 16th century audience. A story of bravery and consistency that ends cheerfully – what could be better. This painting hangs in the Accademia in Venice.
VERROCCHIO too painted a magical version of ‘Tobias and the Angel’ the canvas is now in the National Gallery in London. It is exquisite, the colours are so rich and lush. It is an absolute feast for the eyes. A very young Leonardo da Vinci worked in Verrocchio’s studio in Florence at that time and some experts have suggested that the dog and fish were actually painted by Leonardo. Certainly the delicate painting of the dog and the movement of his legs and face are very realistic. The fish being held in Tobias’ hand is like a miniature still life. The elegance of the tunics and luxurious fabrics in the picture, with idyllic countryside in the distance suggests a magical, fairy tale journey. This reminds me of an ancient version of the best-selling book ‘The Alchemist’ where the young hero Santiago sets out on a life changing journey to find treasure – only to discover that everything he was seeking was right in front of him.
BACK TO VENICE and I’m struck by the importance of angels in our collective imagination. The whimsical and appealing idea that angels offer us wisdom, guidance, healing and friendship. In the Church of the Gesuiti, just round the corner from my morning stroll, there’s another painting about angels transporting souls to the heavens. This painting is by Jacopo Palma il Giovane (1548-1628) and for me it is filled with empathy, emotion and joy. The Guardian Angel is instructing the young boy, who gives the angel his full attention, it could easily be Tobias. I can’t see a fish but it doesn’t matter, my imagination fills in the rest. In the background other angels are transporting souls to the heavens. The scene is happy, joyful and kind. There’s a dynamic element to the painting, a level of optimism that is compelling and endearing.
LASTLY I’d like to mention a painting by Filippino Lippi that shows Tobias with not one but three guardian angels. This time the young Tobias is accompanied by Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. On the far right Gabriel is holding a lily flower, this is traditionally associated with Mary and the announcement via an angel that she is to have a baby. I wonder if Lippi in this painting was referring to Tobias and his imminent marriage to Sarah, once she’s been released from those dastardly demons of course. The thing is with art and saints and angels once I start thinking about the paintings in front of me I just can’t stop. One thought leads to another and another and another. In fact I’ve just realised that there’s a church in Venice dedicated to the archangel Raphael. I’ve never been to that church, and I’m going to have to go. Who knows what treasures are waiting inside for me to discover. Maybe the archangel Raphael will be waiting to guide me on yet another interesting journey into art, history, angels and saints.
- The story of ‘Tobias and the Angel‘ is beautifully retold in a modern context by Salley Vickers in her novel ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel‘ – published in 2000. It traces a retired teacher’s discovery of Venice, interwoven with the tale of ‘Tobias and the Angel’. It is original and elegantly written.
- ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho is a modern fable on searching, longing and discovery. A massive best seller (1993).
- Now that I’ve seen the association between the Madonna del’ Orto and St Christopher I’m going to have look further into the stories and history of that saint – especially given that he’s the patron saint of travellers.
- You might enjoy other articles that I’ve written about saints in Venice:
- The legend of St Lucy – that’s Santa Lucia in Italy
- St Catherine of Alexandria
- There’s more on the Church of San Zaccaria in Venice at: Venice – there’s treasure in every church
- I’ve also written about St Mark’s and the exceptional treasures within this pseudo-oriental basilica: The Magic of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice
- Happy Reading!
- Written: 1st September 2020