Saturday, November 23, 2013

Festa of the Madonna della Salute in Venice

The Black Madonna - Panagia Mesopantitisa, Venice - on the Festa della Salute - Photo: Cat Bauer
The Black Madonna - Panagia Mesopantitisa, Venice - Festa della Salute - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) During the fifteen years I've lived in Venice, I have rarely missed the Festa of the Madonna della Salute on November 21. Most of the city, and much of the Veneto, makes the trek over the pontoon bridge from Santa Maria del Giglio next to the Hotel Gritti Palace and over to the Church of the Salute on Punta della Dogna to light a candle (or two or three) so that the Beloved Black Madonna will protect our health.

The plague first struck Venice in 1575. Desperate for relief, in 1577 the Venetian Senate decided to build a church in honor of Christ the Redeemer if God would end the plague. That worked (for a while), and the city of Venice has the magnificent Church of Redentore to show for it.

Church of Redentore - Photo: Cat Bauer venice blog
Church of Redentore - Photo: Cat Bauer
Unfortunately, the plague returned only 55 years later, so Doge Nicolò Contarini and the boys decided to build another church, this time pleading to the Virgin Mary for help. After all, the Republic of Venice was feminine, and under the Madonna's rule -- or so the story goes.

On October 22, 1630, Contarini ordained that the church be built. The 26-year-old architect Baldassare Longhena won the competition to design it. Work started in 1631 and was finished in 1687. Longhena wrote:

Church of Madonna della Salute - Photo: Cat Bauer venice blog
Church of Madonna della Salute - Photo: Cat Bauer

"I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the ... shape of a crown."
The centerpiece of the awesome Salute Church is the Panagia Mesopantitisa, a very wise Byzantine Black Madonna, who never fails to fill me with deep emotion. The Panagia Mesopantitisa gets all dolled up for the occasion, and puts on her finest jewels. If we can understand where she comes from, perhaps we can understand why the Venetians built such an impressive church.

Madonna della Salute in all her finery - Photo: Cat Bauer
Madonna della Salute in all her finery - Photo: Cat Bauer
The Panagia Mesopantitisa is from Candia, which was a Greek city originally named Chandax on the island of Crete. The Venetians bought the city for strategic purposes back in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade, and colonized the town. They held onto it for 465 years until 1669 after losing the famous War of Candia (1645-1669), a 21-year battle with the Ottoman Turks for possession of Crete.

The city is now named Heraklion, and is again part of Greece, and that is where the Eastern Orthodox Black Madonna named Panagia Mesopantitisa comes from. I like to think that the Venetians of that era might have been a little sorry for the part their ancestors played in the Fourth Crusade by giving her such an honor.

From the Venice Comune:
"The Festa della Salute is probably the least "touristy" of the Venetian festivities and evokes strong religious feelings among the city's inhabitants.

The holiday is, like the Redentore, in memory of another bout of pestilence, which lasted for two years from 1630-31, and the subsequent vow by the Doge to obtain the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

Even today, thousands of inhabitants visit the main altar of the imposing Salute Church on November 21 to give thanks, and a strong symbolic tie remains between the city and the Virgin Mary."
After you buy your candle, you bring it inside the church and hand it to one of the candle lighters -- if left to our own devices, there is a strong possibility we would burn ourselves up given the size of the crowds.

Next I always stand directly in the rose mosaic circle under the enormous chandelier that dangles from  the center of the dome, and get one of my power charges for the year. In the center of the mosaic is a bronze circle engraved with the words Unde Origo Inde Salus MDCXXXI, which means "From the origin comes salvation, 1631."

Unde Origo Inde Salus MDCXXXI in Church of Madonna della Salute - Photo: Cat Bauer
The crowd surges against the high altar until the young guards controlling the scene allow everyone to pass. You then wander back through the Sacristy, where you can buy little prayer cards and rosaries and gaze upon precious art by Titian and Tintoretto, and the first Pope John Paul's vestments -- who was, of course, Venetian, and died after only 33 days as Pope. For some reason, seeing the sweet Papa's actual clothes made me teary-eyed.

Wood carving on seat - right
(Those elaborate wooden carvings on the choir stalls behind the high altar were so bizarre I had to take a photo of them.)

Wood carving on seat - left
Then everyone pours back out down the steps and over to the endless stalls of sweets from Sicily and enormous balloons for the kids -- for Festa della Salute is a day when every kid in Venice proudly marches through the city clutching their carefully-chosen balloon.

One great thing about living in a Catholic country is that there are many miracles and lots of White Magic floating through the air, and Venice definitely has its own interpretations and rituals. So far, the Madonna della Salute has worked her magic, and kept me healthy and protected under extreme circumstances, so here is a little prayer to share:

Maria, salute degli infermi, prega per noi.

And remember, when your Republic really gets into trouble there is only one way out: SAY YOU'RE SORRY AND THEN BUILD A SPECTACULAR CHURCH GRAND ENOUGH TO CATCH THE EYE OF THE MADONNA OR JESUS CHRIST! It works! 

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat -The Venice Blog


  1. During the fifteen years I've lived in Venice, I have rarely missed the Festa of the Madonna della Salute on November 21.

  2. Grazie! thank you so much for this.

  3. Thank you for this article. I have been to Redentore and it is my dream to attend this feast also.. Michael from Australia

    1. Thank you for reading, Michael. The Festa della Madonna della Salute is very different than Redentore, which has become overwhelmed by tourists. There are no fireworks -- there are candles and Catholic mass. It is more spiritual, like making a yearly pilgrimage and praying to the Madonna for good health (Salute=Health)and eating traditional food with family and friends. It is very beautiful, and was especially meaningful this year, after the flood. Best wishes, Cat

    2. thanks for your reply Cat Bauer I logged on to your blog a year later and see your kind reply above.. I am very happy for Salute to be more spiritual in nature - who knows maybe in 2022 it will be possible to visit ? Best Wishes