Torcello, S Maria Assunta

Era 11AD
Location Fondamenta dei Borgognoni, 24, 30142 Venezia VE, Italy

You get there by boat from Venice.

The large basilica church of S Maria Assunta on Torcello was founded in 639 by the order of the Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna and renovated in 1008 by its bishop, Orseolo, whose father was doge of Venice. Massively detailed studies by Irina Andreescu-Treadgold have dated the mosaics that still survive at the east and west ends of the church (whether there was any along the walls is unknown) with great precision.

In the apse is a standing Virgin and Child on a gold background, labelled in Greek but surrounded by an extensive Latin inscription. It’s a Virgin Hodegetria, in which Mary holds her son in one arm and gestures to him with the other, showing the way to salvation through Christ. Above this image, now lost, was probably a medallion of Christ flanked by two angels. Below is a band depicting the twelve apostles, Peter to her right and Paul to her left, and including two local saints, Heliodorus (supposedly first bishop of Altino) and Hermagoras (the first bishop of Venetia and Istria, allegedly appointed by St Mark). These images are statements of local identity.

Above the Virgin on the Triumphal arch is a scene of the Annunciation, Gabriel on one spandrel flying in towards Mary on the other. The mosaics of the south chapel are also probably mid-eleventh century. Here, an enthroned Christ is flanked by the archangels, Michael and Gabriel (said to be evocative of S Agata Maggiore in Ravenna), whilst below Christ, four Latin Church Fathers stand, all with connections with North Italy. The vault shows four angels supporting a roundel, also strikingly evocative of Ravenna and its Archbishop’s Chapel, containing a Lamb, blood dripping from his chest. Its presence is significant: the 692 Church Council of Trullo had forbidden the representation of Christ as a Lamb, and the prohibition seems to have been followed obediently in Byzantine but not Western art.

The final area of surviving mosaic is on the west wall. Here, a monumental Last Judgement occupies the whole wall, confronting the faithful as they left church. It dates originally to the eleventh century, but has had much done to it: both apse and west wall were repaired piecemeal after serious twelfth-century damage, and have also undergone a great deal of subsequent damage and ‘restoration’. Andreescu-Treadgold established that the top two bands are twelfth century, but probably replicate what was there originally, whilst the bottom half dates to the later part of the eleventh century, perhaps the 1070s.

The Last Judgement is arranged in bands. At the top, the Virgin and St John stand either side of the Crucifixion. Below – the next event in the sequence – is the Anastasis, the descent of Christ to Hades to rescues the righteous dead. Below that is a band with twelve seated apostles, either side of an enthroned Christ seated on the rainbow and in a mandorla, thus locating him in heaven. He is flanked by Mary and St John the Baptist (a composition known to us as a deesis ‘prayer’), and a choir of angels. From Christ’s throne, a fiery river descends into the lower part of the mosaic and ranks of angels, together with Adam and Eve, adore an Empty Throne bearing the instruments of the Passion. Then look carefully! To either side of this, the land (to the viewer’s left) and the sea (viewer’s right) vomit forth their dead, in a variety of interesting ways.

The next register down has two angels weighing souls in the centre below the Empty Throne. To the viewer’s left stands a group of the saved, divided into bishops, nobility, monks and women; to the right, the dammed are escorted into the torments of Hell, to burn with Hades, who holds Dives, the Rich Man of Christ’s parable, on his lap. In the fiery torment, kings, emperors, bishops, nobles, women and monks are all easily distinguishable. The lowest register, just above the marble revetment, and either side of the west door, has a roundel of the Virgin, bust length, hands upraised in prayer, restored in the twelfth century, but plausibly always present. To her right, our left, is Paradise, guarded by an angel and St Peter with his keys, and containing Mary herself, holding the souls of the saved, Abraham, with the Poor Man, Lazarus, on his lap, and the Good Thief who repented at the Crucifixion. To her left, six compartments depict the various torments in store for the damned, ranging from eternal cold or fire to the ‘worm that sleepeth not’. The whole forms a graphic depiction of the Christian message of redemption and salvation through Christ’s mission, and a shocking warning of the Judgement to come.


Torcello is an island in the Venetian lagoon, settled from at least the sixth century and, from the seventh century, the see of the Bishop of Altino. In the tenth century, its population seems to have been in excess of 10,000, making it larger than Venice (which had been founded much later), and it was a major port in its own right. Although as the laguna silted up, Torcello was increasingly abandoned, in the eleventh century, it was a thriving town, with numerous large houses and twelve parishes: many affluent and aristocratic Venetians owned properties on the island, and there were several prosperous monasteries.

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