The Church of Santa Maria della Salute acts as an important landmark in the urban space of Venice. The history of the baroque style building is a reminder of the epidemics that repeatedly struck the city. In comparison to other cities, Venice was well prepared with regards to plagues. By 1423, the Senate of the Venetian Republic established a hospital, the first in the world – for the treatment of plague-infected people, on an island in the lagoon.
On October 26, 1630 in the midst of the bubonic plague, that caused the death of a third of the population, Doge Nicolò Contarini made a vow to construct a church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In that difficult situation, the Republic decided to have recourse to Mary's help, because the legend of the foundation of Venice tells that the mythical birth of the city took place by divine will on the feast of the Annunciation to Mary in the year 421.
Due to that long building process, new contents gradually found their way into the church, which enriched the original meaning of the votive plague church. The high altar from 1670 makes this particularly clear. In the middle stands the Virgin Mary with the Child, on the left is the kneeling personification of the Venetia imploring her, and on the right an angel pushes the defeated Black Death into the abyss. Underneath, however, a Byzantine icon appears: it comes from the cathedral of Heraklion on Crete. When the Venetians had to abandon that city after losing the war against the Turks in 1669, they brought the icon with them.
Venice has been celebrating the cessation of the Black Death since November 21, 1631. Still today, the feast of the Madonna della Salute is one of the most authentic festivals in Venice.
For more specialized information, please download our Webzine SILKROADIA VOL.2 NO.1, and read ‘Santa Maria della Salute in Venice: a votive church and the Black Death’ written by Martina Frank, professors at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy.