Churches of Venice: San Zaccaria

It often feels as though everything about Venice is unique. From its canals, to its traditions and distinctive styles that bring together influences from various parts of East and West. If all roads lead to Rome, as the saying goes, it feels as though all waterways led to Venice -- and that in great part explains Venice's unique style and character. 

In part articles we've considered Venetian gothic, a style which combines gothic elements and Middle Eastern one's. We have also considered the influences of Byzantium and the Greeks. Today we turn to the church of S. Zaccaria, a building which includes a mixture of elements of gothic, the early Renaissance, Byzantium and the Romanesque -- depending on where you look. 

First a bit of history. The present building dates to the fifteenth century, with construction beginning in 1458 and being concluded around 1500.  It was not the first church on this particular site however, replacing an earlier church building dated to the ninth century the still sits next to the new church.  Originally it was also attached to a Benedictine monastery. The church houses the relics of St. Zachary, father of St. John the Baptist, which had been gifted to Venice by the Byzantine emperor Leo V. The church also has a strong connection to the doges of Venice -- a number of whom are buried in the crypt of the church -- who, along with the Venetian court, would annually visit the church at Easter, presenting his ducal cap to the church -- a tradition which arose in thanksgiving for the fact the monastery had donated part of its land holdings to allow for the building of the basilica of San Marco, the ducal chapel of Venice -- located near S. Zaccaria. As result, S. Zaccaria is often considered the secondary chapel of the doges of Venice.

This tradition is said to have began in the twelfth century and lasted until the end of the Venetian republic under Napoleon and his invading armies. 

The present church was originally designed in the gothic style by architect, Antonio Gambello, but parts of the church, such as the upper facade, were designed by anither, Maura Codussi, in an early Renaissance style. The result was an extremely unique facade (one which can find other echoes in other Venetian churches as well). It is a style which, to the best of my knowledge, is rather unique to Venice. (It is also worth peering behind the facade -- see the first photo above -- to see the beautiful dome and basilica-like structure that is otherwise concealed by this facade.)

The design, with its unique convergence of styles and periods, continues in the interior. It may well be one of the more unique churches of Venice -- and it is certainly one which has an extremely strong programme of painted works, especially along the walls of the nave. 

The San Zaccaria altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini, 1505.

Like most churches, the presbytery (or sanctuary) of the church saw the introduction of a freestanding altar in the latter part of the twentieth century, however, here are a few photos which show the church in its classical historical form. 

LAJ has tried to digitally replicate this in the following photograph, to give a greater sense of how the church appeared for most of its existence:

Here is the church today (which includes a rather curious altar comprised of four high altar candlesticks forming the "legs" of the altar):

One thing one will note here is the Romanesque styled balustrade that surrounds the altar and presbytery -- something one does not see so very often in Venice.  What's more, this extends quite literally to the high altar itself -- a rather unique feature:


The church also contains the famous chapel of San Tarisio -- known as the "Golden Chapel" of Venice -- which s actually a part of the older church, refurbished in the late gothic period.  Contained within are three absolutely stunning altarpieces (polyptychs) as well as one of the richest collections of relics in Venice.

Most impressive of all is the altarpiece which accompanies the altar itself, the polyptych of the Virgin created in 1443 with a carved, gilt gothic frame by Ludovico da Forti and paintings by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d'Alemagna -- the reverse side of which (not shown) includes depictions showing all of the saints whose relics are housed within the chapel. 

To either side are two other polyptychs, also by the same craftsman and artists, that of Santa Sabina and Corpus Christi. The latter shows the deposition of Christ and also includes images of the fourth century soldier martyrs Ss. Nereo and Achilleo; the former depicts S. Sabina, S. Margaret and S. Agatha. 

Polyptych of the Body of Christ

Polyptych of Santa Sabina

Also found within this chapel are life-sized wooden sculptures from the fifteenth century depicting the namesake of the church, St. Zachary and another of St. Benedict -- pointing back to the Benedictine origins of the church.

St. Zachary, ca. 1585

Finally, as mentioned, there is an ancient crypt beneath the church in which various doges are memorialized. For much of the year the crypt is substantially under water however. 

Certainly a church that is well worth stopping to visit if you are in Venice and near the basilica of San Marco.

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