Venice - The Four Great Plague-churches
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
[VENICE, during the Middle Ages, was much exposed to the chance of plague, owing to its constant commercial intercourse with the crowded and pestilence - stricken towns of the Levant. When an epidemic occurs in modern times, we improve the main drainage and the sanitary conditions ; the Middle Ages, under similar circumstances, regarding the disease as a divine punishment, vowed and built a new church to an influential plague-saint. In consequence of this habit the whole coast of the Adriatic abounds in plague-churches, and in votive pictures dedicated by those who escaped, or recovered from, the malady. It is therefore well, before attacking the deliberate study of Venetian painting at the Academy, to become acquainted on the spot with some at least of the Four Great Plague-Churches of the city. In the Academy we shall find many such pestilence-pictures, divorced from the surroundings for which they were originally intended ; and we can therefore the less comprehend their import and significance. In the plague-churches, oN the other hand, we see them in their original places, and in the midst of other objects of the same character. For this reason I would urge the visitor to take this peculiar group of churches (or at least the first two of them) thus early in his course ; and I recommend him to inspect them in the following order, which is not chronological, but which is so arranged as best to enable him to grasp their peculiar meaning. I have also intentionally laid most stress here, not on their general artistic features, but on those points which help to show their central purpose.]
A. THE SALUTE.
[In 1630 Venice was visited by an epidemic of the plague of unusual violence. In the city, 46,000 persons perished : in the lagoons, 94,000. As a votive offering for escape from the pestilence, the Republic vowed a church to Our Lady of Health or of Deliverance, (Madonna della Salute :) and in 1631 it began the erection of the existing building of Santa Maria della Salute. The church was designed in a debased form of the then fashionable Palladian style by Longhena, a pupil of Palladio's ; and, for an edifice of its period, it is not ungraceful in general proportions. Almost every object of art it contains (many of them brought from earlier buildings) bears reference to pestilence. Though it is the youngest of the plague-churches, I take it first, because it is in some ways the most characteristic.]
The Salute may be reached (1) by gondola direct ; (2) by steamer to the Accademia (lo c.) ; thence the pleasantest way is to turn down the broad street, L. of the Academy, till you reach the Fondamente delle Zattere ; there turn to the L., cross three bridges in a direct line, and take the broad street on the L., which leads you at once within sight of the Salute.
The exterior is singularly effective from a distance, (especially as viewed from the Grand Canal,) with its two unequal domes, and its pair of picturesque bell-towers at the back. Its situation is splendid. The fine flight of steps before it also add greatly to its effectiveness. Seen nearer, however, it ceases to be beautiful ; the decorations are florid and overloaded, while the buttresses (themselves a sham, since the cupola is of wood and therefore needs no support) are affectedly twisted into wriggling scrolls. The figures in the niches, (St. George, St. Theodore, the Evangelists, the Prophets, Judith with the head of Holofernes, etc.,) do not deserve individual inspection. At the apex of the pediment is placed a statue of the patroness, Our Lady, who thus presides over the church erected in her honour.
The interior is circular, or rather octagonal, with eight radiating chapels on the outer row. R. of the entrance are three altars, with (poor) scenes from the life of the patroness, Our Lady, by Luca Giordano : her Presentation in the Temple, her Ascension, her Nativity. Over the 3rd altar to the L. of the entrance, the Descent of the Holy Ghost, by Titian, a weak specimen of the master, much blackened by time.
The High Altar, opposite the main entrance, in the second circular portion or Presbytery, under the back dome, has a vulgar Baroque sculptured altar-piece by Justus le Court : Venice at the feet of Our Lady, imploring protection from the plague; to the R., Our Lady despatches an angel to repel the dark demon of the pestilence. (I only mention this ugly and florid work because of its strikingly illustrative deprecatory character.) The monolithic columns of the Presbytery are from a Roman temple at Pola in Istria. On the ceiling, Four Evangelists and Four Fathers by Titian.
L. of the altar is the entrance to the Sacristy, which contains a number of typical plague-pictures. L. on entering a Girolamo da Treviso; in the centre, the protector against pestilence, San Rocco, lifting his robe to show his plague-spot ; (see later under the church of San Rocco ;) R, St. Sebastian, wounded with the arrows of the pestilence ; L., St. Jerome, patron saint of the painter, with his lion and book ; a very characteristic and speaking plague-picture. On the other side of the door, a Madonna and Child close by, St. Sebastian, by Marco Basaiti, another plague-picture. Over the altar, *Titian : Venice preserved from the plague of 1510, in which Giorgione died. (It was painted for the church of Santo Spirito in 1513, and brought to this new plague-church in 1656.) In the centre sits St. Mark enthroned, as representative of Venice, his curious seat apparently suggested by the sacred stone of the Re-public, the Pietra del Bando. A cloud flits over and casts a shadow on his face, indicating that the plague has at-tacked Venice. It is, however, clearing away, and the Evangelist's body is in bright sunshine. To the R., the two great plague-saints, St. Sebastian, shot through with arrows, and San Rocco, lifting his garment to show his plague-spot. To the L., the two medical saints, Cosmo and Damian, with their surgical instruments and boxes of ointment : Damian seems to point to St. Roch's symptoms, as if in consultation. The whole thus represents the preservation of Venice after a severe pestilence by the intercession of St. Mark, whose body she possesses, and of San Sebastian and San Rocco, to both of whom she has erected churches, while of one she holds the actual remains ; as well as by the skill and care of her medical profession, with the aid of the patron saints of the faculty. This is, perhaps, the most characteristic example you could find in Europe of a local plague-picture. As a specimen of Titian, it belongs to his early period, when he was still strongly influenced by Giorgione : but I advise you to defer these questions of the evolution of art till after you have visited the Academy. It has been badly restored.
One entire wall of this sacristy is occupied by *Tintoretto's Marriage at Cana in Galilee, a large dark picture, much praised by Ruskin—" colour as rich as Titian's ; light and shade as forcible as Rembrandt's "—but ill seen in its present position. Such a festive work obviously does not belong to a plague-church ; it is one of the subjects usually painted for the refectories of monasteries, and, as a matter of fact, this example was brought from the refectory of the Brotherhood of the Crociferi. Long perspective; fine effect of light : golden-haired Venetian ladies ; no sacredness.
On the ceiling are three paintings by Titian, not specially related to the main subject of the church they represent the Death of Abel, Abraham's Sacrifice, and the Death of Goliath. This Sacristy contains several other good pictures, (including one *lunette, skied, from the tomb of Doge Francesco Foscari,) which, however, I advise you to neglect, as they do not fall in with the scheme of the church, and are by no means among the most interesting objects in Venice. In the ante-sacristy is a good 15th-century kneeling statue of Doge Agostino Barbarigo.
(Close to the Salute, on the W., rises the beautiful 14th-century Gothic apse of the church of the Monastery of San Gregorio, now secularised. The courtyard of the abbey, let out in tenements, may be reached by crossing the bridge and taking the first turn to the R. Though very dilapidated, it is, perhaps, the most picturesque court in Venice. Its gate towards the Grand Canal is quietly beautiful, and has a quaint figure of the patron, St. Gregory, over the doorway.)
B. SAN ROCCO, AND THE SCUOLA DI SAN ROCCO.
[The most peculiarly Venetian of the plague-saints of the city is St. Roch or San Rocco, whose actual body lies in the church named after him, as the body of St. Mark lies, in the Ducal Chapel. This body was in the 15th century one of the most precious possessions of Venice.
S. Roch (born about 1285) was a native of Montpellier in Languedoc, who devoted his life to nursing the sick in hospitals. (If possible, before visiting the buildings, read his life in full in Mrs. Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art; I epitomise here as much of his history as is absolutely necessary for comprehension of the church and scuola.) At Piacenza, while nursing in the hospital, he found himself plague-stricken ; an ulcer had broken out on his left thigh, and, in devotional pictures, he is generally represented raising his robe to show this deadly symptom. Supported by his pilgrim's staff, (always his attribute in art,) he crawled feebly to a wood, where his little dog alone attended him, and brought him a loaf once a day miraculously from the city. An angel also dressed his wound and healed him. His subsequent adventures are immaterial ; he died, unknown and a prisoner, in his native town : but on the strength of these episodes, he became a local plague-saint of great renown at Montpellier, elsewhere unimportant till the 15th century. In 1414, however, during the sittings of the Council of 'Constance, an epidemic of plague broke out in that city ; and on the advice of a German monk who had travelled in Languedoc, the effigy of St. Roch was carried in procession through the streets to abate it : whereupon the pestilence shortly disappeared. This episode gave the man of Montpellier great vogue as a plague-saint. In 1485, during the ravages of a plague in Venice, certain Venetian conspirators stole the body of St. Roch from its shrine at Montpellier, and carried if off to their own city, where it was publicly received by the Doge and senators. A splendid church was at once designed to cover it, and a community, already existing for the care of the sick poor, engaged themselves to pay for its erection. The stately guild-house of this brotherhood adjoins the church, and is decorated by noble frescoes of Tintoretto and his pupils. Tintoretto, (Jacopo Robusti,) the last great painter of Venice, (1518-r 594) worked here for 18 years, having received the commission to paint the whole Scuola. His works in this hall are technically of the highest merit, for draughtsmanship, composition, and contrasts of light and shade : but they are dark and gloomy, and, being ill lighted, have little attractiveness for the general public. He was a colossal and indefatigable genius, full of imagination and audacity : but he often spoiled his finest works by his love of display, his inveterate habit of posture-making, and his inability to resist showing off his powers of drawing, especially as regards figures in violent action. No great artist has been more variously appreciated.
The Scuola is open daily from to to 3, I franc per person. Morning light desirable. ]
San Rocco is best visited from the steam-boat station of San Toma. Thence, strike as straight inland as you can go, past San Tomà church, till you come to the gigantic Gothic mass of the Frari. The passage to the L. of this huge brick building leads into a square. In front of you rises the church of San Rocco. To the L. you see the palatial Renaissance façade of the Scuola. The authorities unfortunately compel you to visit the latter first. Note before doing so the lofty and imposing marble front of the Scuola, early Renaissance, somewhat Roman in type, 1517, a princely specimen of Venetian architecture.
Enter by the far door on the R., near a wooden figure of San Rocco lifting his robe to show his plague-spot. Pay t franc each person, for the Church and Scuola inclusive. The word Scuola means a religious fraternity or charitable guild.
You reach first the lower hall of the Scuola, far less handsome than the upper. All the pictures hereafter enumerated are by Tintoretto, unless I state to the contrary. Those who wish for a complete analysis of these celebrated works, longer than can be undertaken within the compass of this Guide, may turn to the 3rd volume of Ruskin's Stones of Venice, where they are enthusiastically rather than critically described. A good and more moderate account is also given of them in Karl Karoly's Paintings of Venice. Catalogues on panels are provided in each room ; I will therefore only call special attention to those works which particularly refer to the central purpose of the Church and Scuola.
L. wall, opposite to you as you enter, Scenes from the Infancy : Annunciation, *Adoration of the Magi, Flight into Egypt, and Slaughter of the Innocents ; all highly characteristic of the comparative realism which Tintoretto introduced into sacred subjects. (But you will understand this better after visiting the Academy.) The small pictures to the L. and R. of the altar (ill seen) represent the two desert female saints, St. Mary Magdalen and St. Mary of Egypt, in dark landscapes. They typify the desolate condition of the plague-stricken. Over the altar, statue of San Rocco, (by Campagna,) lifting his robe, as usual, with his pilgrim staff, and the dog that brought him bread in the wilderness. (Wilderness subjects are naturally characteristic of this Scuola.) R. wall, between the staircases, Circumcision of Christ ; beyond it, Assumption of Our Lady.
Mount the staircase.
First landing, over the opening on the R., Annunciation, by Titian; over the opening on the L., * Visitation, by Tintoretto.
On the sides of the upper staircase, late Renaissance pictures (17th century) representing the plague, with the intercession of Our Lady. In the dome overhead, by Pellegrini, San Rocco introducing to Charity a personage symbolical of the Scuola di San Rocco.
The splendid upper hall of the Fraternity—a magnificent and palatial apartment—is decorated throughout with paintings by Tintoretto. The place of honour over the altar is occupied by an altar-piece of the Glorification of San Rocco amid the plague-stricken. L. and R. are statues by Campagna of St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist,—the first as a companion plague-saint, the second as the first and most typical saint of the wilderness. He foreshadows San Rocco in the wilds near Piacenza.
Around the walls are New Testament pictures, parallels to events in the life of San Rocco. The servant follows the Master.
L. wall, (beginning at the end remote from the altar,) Adoration of the Shepherds, Baptism of Christ, Resurrection, Agony in the Garden, Last Supper ; curiously arranged so that the more important picture occupies the central wall between the windows.
R. wall, beginning at the same end, Loaves and Fishes, Raising of Lazarus, Ascension, Pool of Bethesda, Temptation in the Wilderness. Note the relation of most of these subjects to the trial of the Christian by the plague,—the Pool of Bethesda representing healing ; the Temptation in the Wilderness symbolising the sifting of the faithful by sickness the Raising of Lazarus, the unexpected recovery of serious cases, and so forth.
On the end wall, between the windows, (almost impossible to see,) the brother plague-patrons, San Rocco and St. Sebastian.
I am not myself a Tintoretto enthusiast, and therefore I feel incompetent to criticise these fine and pregnant pictures; for rapturous comment, I must refer the reader to Ruskin. But they need little explanation of the kind which it is the purpose of these Guides to afford ; and they should be carefully studied by the visitor at his leisure on his own account.
The ceiling contains, in its great central panel, the Plague of Serpents and Raising of the Brazen Serpent ; subjects obviously symbolical of the plague. The square panels on either side of this compartment represent Moses Striking the Rock, and the Fall of the Manna ; both clearly typical of healing. Elijah and the Angel prefigures St. Roch and the Angel. All the other subjects of this ceiling, which are fully described on the small hand-screens supplied by the custodian, are symbolical of, or parallel with, the episodes in the life of San Rocco described in the Introduction. Daniel in the Den of Lions and the Three Children in the Furnace typify the trial of the Christian by suffering —and so forth.
The large door at the bottom of the hall (remote from the altar) leads into the Sala del Albergo, or guest-room of the Brotherhood, the finest apartment of this regal charity. Its general decorations afford a good picture of the wealth and dignity of the opulent old Venetian fraternities.
The principal wall, which faces you, has Tintoretto's masterpiece, **the Crucifixion ; it requires careful study. The other works represent episodes of the Passion. On the ceiling is the Reception of San Rocco in Heaven by God the Father around are allegorical figures representing the various virtues of the patron saint.
Before leaving, ask back your tickets for the church from the custode.
The church of San Rocco, built in 1490, was entirely modernised in the 18th century, and possesses an ugly late-Baroque façade, only interesting from the numerous figures of the saint which adorn it.
The interior is bare and ugly. Over the first altar to the R. is a plague-picture by Rizzi, representing a late plague-patron, St. Francis of Paola, resuscitating a dead child. On the wall beyond it, below, the Impotent Man at the Pool of Bethesda waiting for the troubling of the waters, symbolical of the plague-stricken looking to Christ for succour, a large, confused, unpleasant picture : above, San Rocco in the wilderness, with the dog bringing him bread from the city ; to the R. and L. of this, suppliants imploring the saint for succour ; all these by Tintoretto.
In the choir, High Altar, a figure of San Rocco, baring his leg to show the plague-spot ; to the R. and L., St. Sebastian and the desert Father, St. Jerome. On the walls, R. side, below, San Rocco attending the plague-stricken in the Hospital ; above, San Rocco healing the diseases of animals ; L. side, above, the capture of San Rocco at Montpellier ; below, the angel appears to the dying San Rocco in prison. The subjects are confused and difficult to understand. In the chapel R. of the choir is a miracle-working picture by Titian, the Betrayal of Christ. The other pictures in the church are uninteresting. I have brought you here thus early mainly in order to make you feel the importance of these plague-churches and plague-pictures at Venice.
San Rocco may be visited with great advantage at a later stage, after you have traced the evolution of Venetian painting at the Academy ; you may then read Ruskin's elucidatory comments face to face with the pictures which called them forth. I do not deal with them here as works of art, but rather as elements in the plague-protective arrangements of contemporary Venice.
C. SAN GIOBBE.
[As a general rule, holy persons who died before the Christian period are not invoked by the Church as saints. But on the Adriatic coast of Italy, so exposed to plague, an exception was early made in favour of the Patriarch Job, the grievous sufferer from boils and blains, plagued by Satan "from the sole of his foot unto his crown " ; it was thought that he must feel a personal sympathy for the plague-stricken, so churches were dedicated to him and pictures painted for him through-out the whole of this ravaged region. No doubt the Intercourse with the East itself, where the feeling for Old Testament saints was always stronger, contributed to this somewhat irregular practice, an excuse for which was found in the text, "Go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering ; and my servant Job will pray for you : for him will I accept." But the truth seems to be that the plague-stricken in their despair were ready to take any chance of relief that seemed to offer. (Jeremiah and other Old Testament personages also form similar exceptions.)
In the poor and squalid district which lies to the north-west of Venice, the Franciscans, the Salvation Army of their day, built a church to St. Job, near the crowded and insanitary Jewish Ghetto. The adjacent parish, also Franciscan, is that of Sant' Alvise—i.e. St. Louis of Toulouse, the prince who gave up the inheritance of a crown for the coarse brown robe of a begging friar. A knowledge of these facts is necessary to a proper comprehension of San Giobbe, and of the works of art elsewhere removed from it. The existing somewhat uninteresting church, in the early Renaissance style, dates from 1462, and was designed by Pietro Lombardo. Though it lies remote, and contains few objects of interest, I strongly advise a visit to it, and to the neighbouring church of Sant' Alvise, before the visitor begins his studies at the Academy.]
San Giobbe may be reached, (1) direct by gondola ; (2) on foot, by the Merceria ; thence, turning R. at Goldoni's statue, along the new main thoroughfare known as the Corso, to the Cannaregio ; (3) by steamer (to c.) to San Geremia statlon. All three routes unite at San Geremia, whence one may walk on either side of the Cannaregio or Canal di Mestre (R. side preferable). The great palace opposite, next to the church of San Geremia, is the Palazzo Labia, 17th century, imposing by mere mass. The first bridge over the canal is decorated (or the opposite) with grotesque heads of the worst baroque period, justly stigmatised by Ruskin for their unspeakable foulness and vileness of expression. Beyond it, on the L., the first building is the uninteresting Palazzo Manfrin, (feeble picture gallery :) while on the R. towers the Ghetto Vecchio, looking from this point like a single building, but really a tangled mass of tenements. Go as far as the bridge with three arches, across the Cannaregio, and then turn to the L. A minute's walk brings you thence into the little Campo of San Giobbe, in front of the church and the desolate former Franciscan monastery. The lonely small yard, with its well and arcade, is strangely picturesque in its downfall, The best point about the church is its doorway, a fine piece o1 early Renaissance work, in the style of the Lombardi. On the pilasters are admirable winding convolvulus plants, with exquisite birds ; the capitals are semi-classical, acanthus leaves and ox-sculls. In the lunette is a striking Franciscan relief, inferior in workmanship to the decorative detail, but full of inner meaning ; it represents Sinai, as a mount of light, upon which rays of mercy descend from heaven ; to the L., St. Francis kneels in prayer ; to the R., St. Job ; thus mingling the Jewish and Christian dispensations, and pointing out that plague and misery on the one hand, and salvation on the other, come to Jew and Christian alike. The close proximity of the crowded and insanitary Ghetto of course gives point to this impressive and speaking symbol. On the summit of the arch and on the entablature are placed excellent statuettes (probably by Pietro Lombardo) of three great Franciscan saints, all more or less connected with the ministry to the plague-stricken,—St. Antony of Padua, the patron of suffering children ; St. Bernardino of Siena, with his symbol, the I.H.S. ; and St. Louis of Toulouse, (Sant' Alvise) in canonicals as Bishop, to represent the adjacent parish, also Franciscan. The whole work is thus very appropriate to a Franciscan mission church, in a poor and densely packed district, inhabited alike by Jews and Christians.
The interior has relatively few plague-objects, though one or two may be detected by the reader for himself on the strength of the information already supplied him. I will not here repeat it. There is also much good plastic work of the school of the Lombardi. Near the door, statuette of St. Antony of Padua, symbolically carrying the infant Christ. Left aisle, 1st chapel, by Pietro Grimani, (circa 1556,) fine stone carving. 2nd chapel, of Florentine architecture and sculpture, (probably by Rossellino,) fine marble altar ; on the ceiling, the Four Evangelists, glazed terra-cotta, by Luca della Robbia : an intrusive bit of Florence at Venice. In the choir, exquisite *reliefs and *decorative friezes by Pietro Lombardo, erected at the expense of Doge Cristoforo Moro (the donor of the existing building) in 1462. Below is his tomb, bearing his device, the mulberry (moro) also by the Lombardi. In the Sacristy is a portrait of Doge Moro, copy, after Bellini . as well as a good picture by Previtali, Madonna and Child, with St. John Baptist and St. Catharine—a marriage of St. Catharine, (duplicate in the National Gallery in London.) Also, a terra-cotta bust of St. Bernardino of Siena, the great Franciscan preacher.
But the main reason why I have brought you thus early to this small church is this—its chief altar-piece was formerly a famous picture by Giovanni Bellini, which you will see here-after at the Academy-a plague-picture devoted to St. Job and his Franciscan fellow-saints—the meaning of which will only become apparent to you after you have seen this church with its expressive and allusive doorway. Go round the building, then, with these two main ideas in your head—first, that it is a plague-church, dedicated to St. Job ; and, second, that it is a Franciscan church, full of memorials of the Franciscan missionary saints, who likewise ministered to the poor and suffering.
Sant' Alvise, close by, may conveniently be visited at the same time. It was built by Antonia, daughter of Doge Antonio Venier, in 1388, in obedience to a vision in which the good Franciscan bishop, St. Louis of Toulouse, appeared to her miraculously. It was a nuns' church and has therefore a nuns' singing gallery, screened by fine ironwork. Among its pictures is one, uninteresting, by the Heirs of Paolo Veronese, representing St. Louis at the feet of Pope Boni-face VIII. The building is chiefly famous, however, for eight small panels, absurdly overpraised by Ruskin, and attributed by him to Carpaccio as a boy of eight or ten. They are obviously the work of a poor imitator of the master's manner. The subjects are scenes from the Old Testament history.
D. SAN SEBASTIANO.
[St. Sebastian the martyr, who was shot through with arrows, but miraculously recovered, though he afterwards died by being beaten to death with clubs, was from an early date the chief patron against plague and pestilence throughout the whole of Europe. (See his legend in Mrs. Jameson.) Arrows had been regarded, indeed, from classical times as the common symbol of pestilence. A Jeronymite monastery and church in honour of this most ancient and revered of plague-saints existed in early mediaeval Venice ; but the present remodelled building dates only from 1506 - 1518, and is a tolerable specimen of the Renaissance art of the period. It is interesting, however, both as one of the Four Great Plague-Churches of the city, and also as being the favourite church of Paolo Veronese, who is buried in it, and who painted here some splendid scenes from the life of St. Sebastian and his companions. As the tourist will by this time be tolerably familiar with the art of the votive plague-offerings, I will not in this case lay so much stress as previously on these particular features.
Paolo Veronese, when he first came from Verona to Venice, was employed by the Jeronymites to decorate their Sacristy, and also, later, the ceiling of their church. These. were his first commissions, and they brought him into much notice.
As this is a Jeronymite church, look out for St. Jerome as well as St. Sebastian. The monastery is dissolved : from its Refectory came the gorgeous Veronese of the Supper in the House of the Pharisee now in the Brera at Milan.]
San Sebastiano may be reached, on foot, from the Zattere by continuing along the quay till you arrive at the Rio di San Sebastiano ; or, direct, in a gondola.
The façade is uninteresting, but has on the apex of its pediment a figure of the patron saint, wounded with arrows. Near the door, small figures of St. Sebastian and St. Jerome. On a house to the L. in the little Campo (once part of the monastery) is another statuette of the patron saint, with the crown of martyrdom.
The interior is bare, but has a handsome painted ceiling.
Begin with the R. wall. The 1st chapel, of St. Nicholas, has a fine seated figure of that holy bishop, enthroned, by Titian ; an angel holds his mitre ; beside him, the three balls which are his symbol. On the second altar, partially hiding the altar-piece, is a dainty little *Madonna by Paolo Veronese, with St. Antony of Padua (lily) and St. Catharine of Alexandria, the latter presenting a dove to the infant Saviour. St. Antony is a portrait of the prior of the monastery at the time it was painted. The third altar has a sculptured altar-piece by Tommaso Lombardo (1547) of Our Lady and the Child, with the infant St. John the Baptist, of a type made popular by the Florentine sculptors. The architecture of the niche is better than the marble group within it. The fourth altar, (of black and white marble, with ugly spiral columns, symbolically mourning,) has a Crucifixion by Veronese, superior in feeling to most of his sacred works ; the attitudes of the fainting Mater Dolorosa and of St. John show increasing freedom of treatment ; the Mary Magdalen, however, though not without pathos, is one of his usual handsome Venetian women. (You will appreciate these pictures better after you have studied the development of Venetian art at the Academy.) At the sides are figures (by Alessandro Vittoria) of Our Lady's husband, St. Joseph, bearing the budded staff, and her Mother, St. Anna. Beyond the pulpit is the monument of Bishop Livlo Podocataro, (d, 1555 by Sansovino, a Renaissance work of a type with which we will hereafter become more familiar ; the recumbent figure of the Bishop lies on his sarcophagus ; above, Our Lady and the Child.
The little chapel beside the apse has nothing of interest.
The apse, with a dome, is entirely devoted to the glorification of St. Sebastian, and of his companion martyrs, St. Marcus and St. Marcellinus, The altar-piece is an Apotheosis of St. Sebastian, who is seen below, bound to the pillar at which he was shot. On the R. are St. Mark with his Gospel, (representing Venice,) and St. Francis with the cross and stigmata (representing the Franciscan Jeronymites : ) on the L., St. John the Baptist and St. Catharine of Alexandria, with the palm of her martyrdom ; above, in clouds, Our Lady and the Child, waiting to receive the soul of the glorious martyr.
The large *picture on the R. wall represents the final actual martyrdom of St. Sebastian, (who was beaten to death after recovering from his arrow-wounds,) before a Roman official habited like a great Venetian magnate of Veronese's own period ; the palatial late architecture, and the dogs and other accessories, are highly characteristic of the painter's manner. But as a whole the work, though with good points, is confused and turgid.
The magnificent **picture on the L. wall may be regarded as one of Veronese's masterpieces. On the steps of a soaring and spacious Renaissance palace the two saints, Marcus and Marcellinus, with their hands and feet bound in ropes or chains, set out for martyrdom. Their mother, close by, (to the L.,) implores them to save their lives by abjuring Christianity; to the R., their father, a dignified old man with a long beard, in senatorial robes, adds the force of his prayers to their mother's. Friends surround and persuade them. But in the centre of the picture, St. Sebastian, a vivid and eager young Roman soldier in full armour, bearing a standard, encourages the martyrs to prove their devotion to the faith by going to their death gladly. The vigour, spirit, and dramatic action of the fiery young saint, consumed by zeal for his religion, and wild with enthusiasm, is very remarkable ; he seems to hurry us after him. The bystanders, the accessories, and the imaginary palatial architecture, in the style of Sansovino's Libreria Vecchia, then comparatively lately completed, are all full of Veronese's feeling as well as of the sumptuous and spacious sense of 16th-century Venice.
On the L. wall is the organ, the shutters of which are also painted, by Veronese, with subjects more or less relating to the plague. On the outer shutters is the Purification of Mary in the Temple, a picture which almost foreshadows Rubens ; it seems to typify purification from the pestilence. On the inner shutters (when open) is the Pool of Bethesda, which, as we have seen at San Rocco, is a usual plague-subject.
In the 1st chapel on this wall is a good bust of Paolo Veronese himself, surmounting his tomb. The 2nd chapel, of St. John the Baptist, has a Baptism of Christ, by Veronese, interesting for comparison with earlier treatments both of the central figures and of the attendant angel. On the last altar, St. James the Greater, between two or three ill-discriminated saints ; observe his scallop-shell, which is also quaintly represented in stone on the steps of the altar. (It was his symbol, worn by pilgrims to his great Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostella.)
The fine carved ceiling has scenes by Veronese from the Life of Esther mentioned in the Introduction. Nearest the door, she goes to Ahasuerus ; centre, she is crowned queen ; nearest the apse, Mordecai's triumph.
This church, though wholly given over to the cult of St. Sebastian, is perhaps in its symbolism the least characteristic of the great plague-churches.