Skip to main content

Working Miracles: The Statue of the Madonna dell’Orto

By Marie-Louise Lillywhite

One of the most beautiful of all of Venice’s churches and situated close to Warwick’s centre in Venice, the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, the church of Madonna dell’Orto is usually remembered for its impressive facade and largescale works by Jacopo Tintoretto. Yet the statue of the Virgin present in the chapel of San Mauro holds the key to understanding not only the name of the building, ‘Madonna of the Orchard’, but also the nature of ‘miracle-working’ images in fourteenth century Venice.

I became interested in the church of Madonna dell’Orto whilst completing an essay for my MA in Venetian art history and architecture with Warwick University. During the autumn term which is spent living and attending classes in Venice, I decided to concentrate on the statue of the Virgin in Madonna dell’Orto which I found to be very neglected as a subject, despite its apparent importance as the object directly linked to the name of the church. As any visitor to the church will know, Madonna dell’Orto is believed to be named after a miracle-working image of the Madonna which was found in a nearby orchard in the fourteenth century. Yet the statue was not, as legend would have it, found in an orchard, but was in fact created by the stonemason Giovanni de Santi, son of the masterful Andriolo de Santi, for the prior of Santa Maria Formosa. When the prior refused to pay for the sculpture, finding it crude and unsightly, the frustrated Giovanni abandoned it to suffer the elements in the garden of his house in the parish of Santa Fosca. Giovanni’s observant wife noticed strange noises coming from the statue at night, followed by shafts of bright light emanating from the Madonna's head. The work quickly became the subject of intense veneration and the Bishop of Castello, fearful that a cult might develop, gave Giovanni an ultimatum on pain of excommunication. He could either move the statue inside his house, where it would be invisible to the public, or he could come to an agreement with a church which might be interested in purchasing the statue.

One can only imagine Giovanni’s delight and surprise when he realised the lucrative financial returns which might be gained from the sale of his Madonna. He drove a hard bargain with the brothers of the Humiliati Order, who occupied the site of the present-day church, very close to Giovanni’s own house. In exchange for his sculpture he demanded payment of one hundred and fifty ducats, a Mass said for his soul for every day in perpetuity after his death and to be buried at the foot of the altar, in front of the sculpture of his creation. Whilst the friars were happy to oblige him in the latter two requests, they did not have the resources to pay for the work and so appealed to the Confraternity, or Scuola, of Merchants, who had recently been approved by the Council of Ten and who occupied the building adjoining the church. Thus, the Scuola, of which Giovanni was a member, came to be inextricably linked to the fate of the sculpture of the Madonna dell'Orto and to the Humiliati presence in Venice.

Modern concerns over the ‘beauty’ or ‘quality’ of the statue would have been entirely irrelevant to both the Scuola and the Humiliati Order who would have been conscious of the benefits that owning a miracle-working image could bestow upon them. For the recently permitted Scuola it was a chance to demonstrate its wealth, prestige and piety. For the Brothers the donations which would be left in veneration provided a financial motive that would aid the as yet unfinished building work for both monastery and church. Thus, it was the Scuola who paid for the sculpture on 3 August 1377, noting in their records that ‘the friars deserved to honour the church in every possible way and therefore decided to acquire the statue’. Therefore, the acquisition of the statue of de Santi provides an interesting example of how scuole and religious orders worked together for the mutual benefit of both parties.

Finally, both the church of the Humiliati and the Scuola were originally dedicated to Saint Christopher, yet in an opportunistic manner that is typically Venetian (the replacement of St Theodore for St Mark as the titular saint of the city being the most salient example), the original dedication was forgotten over time and became known as the ‘Madonna dell’Orto’ in honour of the statue that still survives today. Certainly never venerated for her beauty, the crude chisel marks and roughly hewn stone of the heavy Madonna have little appeal, yet the story of this statue demonstrates that she was very important to Venetians. We know, for example, that she was often decorated with precious jewels and dressed in the finest damasks and silks. Whilst the worship of such ‘cult images’ is neither rational nor intellectual, they do reflect a very human desire for an emotional approach to the divine. Giovanni de Santi’s stone Madonna demonstrates how such works could foster lively and genuine veneration within a community and the statue is an early example of the kind of miracle-working images that would become increasingly prevalent in the following centuries.

Comment

The statue of the Madonna dell’Orto was created by the stonemason Giovanni de Santi, son of the masterful Andriolo de Santi, for the prior of Santa Maria Formosa. When the prior refused to pay for the sculpture, finding it crude and unsightly, the frustrated Giovanni abandoned it to suffer the elements in the garden of his house in the parish of Santa Fosca. Giovanni’s observant wife noticed strange noises coming from the statue at night, followed by shafts of bright light emanating from the Madonna's head. The work quickly became the subject of intense veneration.

Marie-Louise Lillywhite achieved first class honours in her BA in Art History at Warwick and was awarded a distinction in her MA in Venetian art history and architecture. She has remained at Warwick to work on her PhD, which investigates the effects of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation on the visual culture of Venice during the late sixteenth century.

Marie Louise-Lillywhite

Marie-Louise Lillywhite

Postgraduate Research Student, History of Art

M dot L dot Lillywhite at warwick dot ac dot uk