A church is a place where people can find shelter. In July 2017, my better half and I found shelter in the church of Santi Maria e Donato on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon. The previous sentence can be taken quite literally: there was a violent rainstorm that day, and we had to flee for safety. Our umbrellas provided little protection against the cats and dogs from heaven, so we ran towards the church, which is actually the Duomo of Murano. We entered through the Chapel of Saint Philomena, which can be found on the far left of the church and is apparently the official entrance, at least for tourists. Fortunately, the church was on our “to see” list anyway, and it has to be said that it is by far the most gorgeous edifice on the entire island. It was actually a pleasure to be trapped inside this church for about an hour, the period of time that elapsed before the rain had stopped.
History of the church
The early history of the Santi Maria e Donato is hazy. It was presumably erected during the Dark Ages and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, perhaps as early as the seventh century. The church enters the historical records in February 999, when it was mentioned in an official document for the first time. In 1124, the Venetians, led by their Doge Domenico Michiel (1117-1130), aided the Crusaders in capturing the city of Tyre in what is now Lebanon. Their help had been anything but a selfless, religiously motivated act, for the Venetians were given a third of the city in return for their assistance. On the way back to Venice, the Venetian fleet raided several islands that were formally part of the Eastern Roman Empire and snatched away several of the precious relics that were kept there. Among these relics were those of Saint Donatus of Evorea, taken from the island of Cephalonia. Donatus – often confused with his namesake, the patron saint of Arezzo – was a fourth century saint, born in what is now Albania, who later became the bishop of a town in Greece. The saint was reported to have slain a dragon in his days, and the bones of this “dragon” (more likely a whale) were apparently taken by the Venetians as well. The relics were laid to rest in the church on Murano on 7 August 1125.
The arrival of these relics must have been the incentive for a rebuilding program which gave the church its present Romanesque form. Work seems to have been completed by the year 1140, as this year can be found in a mosaic that is part of the gorgeous floor of the basilica. On this occasion, the church was rededicated to both the Virgin Mary and Saint Donatus, and acquired its current name, Santi Maria e Donato. The church was restored on several occasions, and this was not always done competently. Restorations carried out before 1700 had destabilised the outer walls. The nineteenth century restoration (1858-1873) that intended to correct this problem actually ended up rebuilding most of the church. This restoration was executed clumsily, to put it mildly. It has been sharply criticised in the past, and much of it has been reversed in the 1970s. Murano was originally part of the Diocese of Torcello and therefore dependent on the baptistery of Torcello’s cathedral. Since Torcello was quite far away, a baptistery was added to the Santi Maria e Donato at some time during the Middle Ages. It was demolished in 1719.
The church facade is very simple. All we see is naked brick, with a single mullioned window just below the roof, four windows in the aisles, a marble relief showing Saint Donatus, and two marble polygonal basements, perhaps from an altar taken from Altino on the mainland. Next to the church is a freestanding campanile dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century. As far as I know, it cannot be climbed. The true treasure of the church exterior is its apse, which is truly amazing. It is divided into two tiers, with blind arches (called “concave nook compartments” in one source) and columns on the ground level and open arches, columns and balustrades on the first floor, which is a gallery. The apse is best admired from either the Ponte San Donato or the other side of the canal.
Leaving aside the Chapel of Saint Philomena on the left, the church has the form of a classical Roman basilica, with a high central nave and lower aisles to the left and right of it. It is hard to decide what the most prized possession of the church is. It must be either its floor, which is a mix of opus sectile and mosaic, or the mosaic of the Vergine orante in the conch of the apse. Before discussing these treasures, I would like to remark that it can be quite dark inside the church, especially on a rainy day. Taking photos is allowed, but fairly difficult if the light is bad. There is a machine for turning on the lights near the side entrance in the left aisle. For two euros, visitors get three minutes of light. Entrance to the Santi Maria e Donato itself is, by the way, free.
Santi Maria e Donato’s polychrome marble floor dates from the twelfth century and was completely re-laid in the 1970s. Among the floor mosaics, we find several pairs of facing peacocks. They are symbols of immortality and are drinking from a cup containing the water of life. Another mosaic shows an eagle capturing a lamb or deer with its claws. Even more spectacular is a mosaic that shows two roosters that have captured a fox. The fox plays dead, and the roosters are likely in for a surprise when they untie their prisoner. The mosaic symbolises how cunning triumphs over simpletons. To get a good look at all the floor decorations, it might be necessary to temporarily move some of the chairs or ropes that are blocking the view (the church probably does not mind, as long as you put everything back in place).
The apse mosaic, executed in the twelfth century, is splendid in its simplicity. It shows the Virgin Mary as the Mother or God against a solid golden background. The Virgin is wearing a blue maphorion. She closely resembles the Virgin of the Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, the main difference being that the child Jesus Christ is missing. Next to the Virgin’s head are the Greek letters MP ΘY, which is an abbreviation of Μήτηρ Θεοῦ, or Mother of God. Below the Virgin, on the walls of the apse, are frescoes of the four evangelists. They are hard to see, even with the lights on. But then again, they look faded and damaged (especially Saint Mark, patron saint of Venice…) and are certainly not among the highlights in the church. The frescoes date to ca. 1404 and are attributed to the Venetian painter Niccolò di Pietro.
On the high altar is a polyptych dating from the middle of the fourteenth century and attributed to a painter from the school of Paolo Veneziano (died ca. 1365). It is encased in a golden frame which was made in 1699. The central scene of the polyptych is the so-called Dormitio Virginis, the Sleep (i.e. Death) of the Virgin. The sleeping Virgin is surrounded by eleven apostles, while in the background we see Jesus Christ with the child Mary on his lap (for a more spectacular rendition of the Dormition, see Pietro Cavallini’s mosaic in the Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome). Flanking the central scene are six saints, three on either side. On the far left is the protomartyr Saint Stephen, who needs no further introduction. To his right is a saint who has been tentatively identified as Saint Gerard of Csanád (also known as Gerard Sagredo), a Venetian who became a Hungarian bishop and was martyred in Hungary in 1046. The third saint left of the scene of the Dormition is clearly John the Baptist. On the right, we find Saint Mark, Saint Heliodorus (the first bishop of Altino) and Saint Lawrence respectively.
Saint Heliodorus appears on the high altar a second time in the form of a statue. He is the man with the bishop’s mitre on the right. On the left is a statue of Saint Lorenzo Giustinian (1381-1456), the first Patriarch of Venice. He was an ancestor of bishop Marco Giustinian of Torcello (bishop from 1692 until his death in 1735), who had the sanctuary of the church restructured in 1695.
Two venerated icons are kept in the Santi Maria e Donato. The chapel to the left of the high altar has the Madonna delle Grazie, the most important icon on all of Murano since the fifteenth century. A picture can be found here. The chapel to the right of the high altar is called the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament. Close to the chapel is a pillar on which we can find the second icon, the Madonna delle Stelle, or Madonna of the Stars. The name derives from the many golden stars on her blue maphorion. The icon closely resembles the apse mosaic discussed above. It was painted in the fourteenth century.
One of the most important sources for this post was the ‘Brief guide for a visit to the Basilica of Saints Mary and Donatus’, a brochure written by Gabriele Mazzucco which is sold inside the church for a mere one euro. Additional information came from my Trotter and Dorling Kindersley travel guides, from John Julius Norwich’s ‘A History of Venice’ and from the Churches of Venice website.
 Venice did not have a patriarch until 1451, when the old Patriarchate of Grado was disbanded.