The Mystery of Sant’ Eufemia

Euf madonnaOf the 118 churches in Venice (that is, the surviving ones, as opposed to the demolished/decayed/collapsed, of which there are about fifty), many are never (in my experience) open. There is a uniform notice on each one, telling you what cultural delights lie within, but nothing about opening hours or access; and their doors, with flaking paint, rusted hinges, and cobwebs woven across them, seem to confirm that, like the cave where the Holy Family sheltered on the way to Egypt, nobody has been in for weeks, months or years.

The apse of the church of San Gregorio.

The apse of the church of San Gregorio.

The enormous abbey church of San Gregorio, between the Accademia and the Salute, is one case in point. The Benedictines left their abbey in 1775, and the building was then suppressed as a parish church by Napoleon in 1807. After a period as a laboratory, and later as an art restoration centre after the disastrous 1966 floods, it is now apparently completely unused.

A contemporary photo of San Gregorio in the late 1960s. The pictures are Tintoretto's 'Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple' and 'Last Judgment', both from the church of the Madonna del Orto, restored after the floods by the efforts of the British charity Venice in Peril.

A contemporary photo of San Gregorio in the late 1960s. The pictures are Tintoretto’s ‘Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple’ and ‘Last Judgment’, both from the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, restored after the floods by the efforts of the British charity Venice in Peril.

(I have found one reference to it being opened briefly in 2013  to display a Canaletto veduta at the site at which it must have been painted.)

At the other end of the scale, the tiny church of Sant’ Eufemia on Giudecca is still consecrated, and apparently used for some services, but the building is certainly not open from 8 to 12 and 3 to 5 every day, as one website claims.

The church's label promises delights within...

The church’s label promises delights within…

In the past, Giudecca had at least nine churches, some of them attached to monasteries, but today parishes have been combined, and Sant’ Eufemia is united with San Gerardo Sagredo (a startlingly ugly Brutalist church built in the 1960s and commemorating the Venetian saint who was martyred in Hungary by being pushed down a hill in a barrel spiked with nails) and the famous Redentore, designed by Palladio and built to commemorate a particularly severe visitation of the plague in 1575–6.

This 1650 map shows the location of Sant' Eufemia on Giudecca, and the now destroyed church of SS Biagio and Cataldo.

This 1635 map shows the location of Sant’ Eufemia on Giudecca, and the now destroyed church of SS Biagio and Cataldo.

Let’s consider the saint first. The church was originally dedicated to four female martyrs: SS Euphemia, Dorothy, Thecla and Erasma. Euphemia herself (‘well-spoken-of’) was allegedly martyred in Chalcedon in 303. Having refused to sacrifice to Ares, she was tortured and then thrown to the bears in the arena. (This gorgeous image is by Andrea Mantegna, and apart from being full-length is very similar in style to his Saint Mark, currently on loan to Palazzo Cini, a short trip across the Giudecca Canal from the church.)

Sant' Eufemia, by Andrea Mantegna, 1454.

Sant’ Eufemia, by Andrea Mantegna, 1454, now in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

Mantegna's St Mark, now usually on display in

Mantegna’s St Mark, usually on display in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

Euphemia’s martyred body played a crucial role in the Council of Chalcedon, but suffered various vicissitudes during the period of iconoclasm in Constantinople, with the result that parts of her can be found in the church of St George in Istanbul, and other relics are venerated in the church of Rovinj in Croatia.

There are two St Dorothys: of Alexandria and of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern Turkish Kayseri). I think this Dorothy may be the latter: martyred in 311, she performed her first miracle on the spot. A lawyer named Theophilus mocked her, saying, ‘Bride of Christ, send some fruit from your Bridegroom’s garden.’ She sent him (via a small boy) her headdress, full of heavenly fruits and flowers, and is thus the patron of gardeners. (Theophilus was of course converted and the spot, and duly tortured and martyred.)

St Thecla, from Iconium (Konya) was a follower of St Paul, and thus an earlier saint than the other two. Having escaped martyrdom at the stake through the intervention of a miraculous hailstorm, she went to live in Pisidian Antioch, where she was saved from the beasts in the arena when the female animals ganged up on the males to defend her. She then lived in a cave on the south coast of Turkey for 72 years, and became a healer.

Paul preaches and Thecla listens in this nineteenth-century image.

Paul preaches and Thecla listens in this nineteenth-century image.

Aggrieved local doctors whose patients had transferred to her sent a gang to rape her, but a passage in her cave miraculously opened to save her, and she went to Rome to lie on the grave of St Paul. There is a catacomb of Santa Tecla in Rome, but she is also venerated as martyr, and several places claim her cave/tomb.

Finally, St Erasma seems to be both local and completely obscure. She was from Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic. For an alternative view of this quartet, the 1921 Book of Saints, compiled by the Monks of Ramsgate, has this paragraph on them: ‘The two first were daughters of Valentius, a pagan nobleman of Aquileia, and the two others, daughters of his brother Valentinianus, a Christian. The pagan Valentius having heard of their baptism had them all arrested. After having been put to the torture they were beheaded (it is alleged by Valentius’s own hand) and their bodies cast into a river near Aquileia. Their martyrdom took place in the first century of the Christian era. They are venerated at Venice and also at Ravenna.’ This sounds a bit ex post facto to me, but who am I to judge?

A panoramic view across the Giudecca Canal from the shadow of the loggia.

A panoramic view across the Giudecca Canal from the shadow of the loggia.

Anyway, in the nature of things the church, founded in 865, became known as ‘Famia’. Merian’s map of 1635 (above) shows a typical Veneto-Byzantine church with a campanile and a so-called ‘sugarloaf’ spire, very different from the building today.

The symmetrical facade of Sant' Eufemia, with the odd addition of the portico.

The symmetrical facade of Sant’ Eufemia, with the odd addition of the portico, and the truncated tower.

The tympanum over the door.

The tympanum over the door.

The two-storey house built onto the base of the campanile.

The two-storey house built onto the base of the campanile.

The radical change came when the strange loggia was added on the canal side of the building. It came from the church of SS Biagio e Cataldo further north along the canal, which was remodelled by Michele Sanmicheli in 1596. Unfortunately, there are two completely different versions of how it got there.

The church from the Zattere side of the canal.

The church from the Zattere side of the canal.

By one account, the portico was originally the gallery support (coro pensile) of the earlier church, rendered redundant by Sanmicheli’s changes and moved to Sant’ Eufemia at the time. The other is that the legendary Giovanni Stucky, Swiss entrepreneur, gave the portico to its current home when he demolished the (by now redundant) SS Biagio e Cataldo to build his extraordinary mill (now the Venice Hilton hotel) in 1883.

molino-stucky-hilton-dusk-1680x940

The Stucky Hilton makes a spectacular new contribution to the Venice skyline, especially at night.

The relics of the two saints (Biagio (St Blaise), the patron saint of wool-combers owing to the unfortunate mode of his martyrdom, and Cataldo, an Irish monk who became archbishop of Taranto) were certainly moved to Sant’ Eufemia before the demolition. Photographs online of the interior look charming: bare brickwork contrasts with pink-and-white marble columns and pistachio-and-white baroque plasterwork.

San Rocco, by Bartolomeo Viviarini (1480).

San Rocco, by Bartolomeo Viviarini (1480).

The greatest artwork inside is the altarpiece (once part of a triptych) by Bartolomeo Vivarini (uncle, and possibly teacher, of the more famous Alvise), who is alleged to have brought oil painting to Venice, being himself a pupil of Antonello da Messina (whose extraordinary ‘Salting Madonna’ from the National Gallery brings to an end the current British Museum exhibition on Sicily). It shows San Rocco (St Roche) characteristically pointing to the bleeding plague sore on his thigh, accompanied by a sympathetic angel.

The Salting Madonna (George Salting was the benefactor who left his collection to the National Gallery in 1910). Look at the angels' wings, apparently attached by jewelled pins, and the infant Jesus, dressed like a little bishop.

The ‘Salting Madonna’ (George Salting was the benefactor who left his collection to the National Gallery in 1910). Look at the angels’ wings, apparently attached by jewelled pins, the lustre of the pearls, and the infant Jesus with a pomegranate, dressed like a little bishop.

Under the portico are various plaques commemorating stages in the history of the church, most of them extremely worn and difficult to read, including an appallingly long list of victims on a First World War memorial.

The fading war memorial, among the many tablets set on the side wall under the portico.

The fading war memorial, among the many tablets set on the side wall under the portico.

What there isn’t, alas, is any clue to when the building is actually accessible – but we will keep wandering down there in hope.

Caroline

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