The early-Renaissance church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli was built as a votive chapel to house a miracle-working image of the Virgin and Child that hung outdoors on a nearby street corner. It was paid for by Angelo Amadi, the nephew of Francesco Amadi who had the icon painted. The uncle had also been married to noted beauty Elena Badoer. The Amadi family house nearby was given to Franciscan nuns after the building of the church.
The Architect and sculptor Pietro Lombardo and his sons
The church was designed by Pietro Lombardo and embellished with carvings by him, his sons Tullio and Antonio, and their workshop.
Pietro Lombardo (born in Carona, cantone Ticino), sculptor and architect (1435 – 1515)
Tullio Lombardo (born in Padua), sculptor and architect (1455 – 1532)
Antonio Lombardo, sculptor (1458 - 1516)
Documents from 1474 confirm Pietro’s arrival in Venice. Im 1475 the humanist Matteo Collaccio sang the praises of his “statues” in the church of S. Giobbe. From 1480 Pietro was in charge of a number of important buildings in Venice as well as in Treviso, where the collapse of the cathedral dome inflicted on him not only a loss of prestige but also considerable economic damage.
From the 1480s onward, at very latest, Pietro was able to count on his sons working with him. Tullio and Antonio worked for many years in their father’s workshop, but this does not mean that they were unable to take on work in their own right as well. Given this background, it is not easy for historians to single out the individual work of these very talented sculptors.
Any attempt to separate the work of the head of the firm and his sons from that carried out by their countless assistants in truly difficult, especially in relation to large-scale works done over a short period of time. This is the case with Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which was started in 1480 and, with the exception of the wooden vault, was already finished by about 1490 after a change in design.
By the end of 1484, the available funds far exceeded the costs of construction; thus the procurators decided to expand upon the existing plan. The revised plan called for the addition of a chancel and for the construction of a convent along the side of the church. The structure, initially intended as a shrine, was transformed into a monastic institution.
Pietro Lombardo completed the construction in 1489, and on December 31 of that same year, twelve nuns from the Franciscan nunnery of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare) in Murano took up residence in the convent and attended the consecration of the new church.
The space consists of a single nave with a wooden barrel vault and a chancel up a steep flight of steps. No columns to complicate the space and add rhythm and no great paintings. It's not the details that appeal, it's simply the perfectly-proportioned whole, as you are enclosed by the polychrome marble patterns and porphyry and the fine carving skills of the Lombardo.
Marbles and porphyry
Exterior and interior walls are sheathed with the finest marbles and porphyry revetments (facings), which are decorated in part with sumptuous carving "all'antica" (in a classical style).
Interior of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli whose walls are completely covered in polychrome marble.
The barrel vault is embellished with coffers adorned with the busts of prophets.
On the high altar there is an image (icon) of the Virgin by Nicolò di Pietro which was worshiped as miraculous from 1477 and is the reason why the church was built.
The sculptural decoration
The scultural decoration in Santa Maria dei Miracoli is famed primarily for its excellently crafted rich ornamentation. Much less attention has been paid to the figurative sculpture, such as the tondi set in the pendentives of the dome above the choir, which are not easy to examine from a distance.
The four small marble statues on the balustrade of the presbytery are attributed to Tullio Lombardo. They represent the Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel, and Saints Francis and Clare.
St. Mark (with his symbol - the lion )and St. Luke (with his symbol - the ox), two tondi in prendentives of the dome of Santa Maria dei Miracoli
and Tullio [Lombardo] carved the sirenes
as the old custode says: so that since
then no one has been able to carve them
for the jewel box, Santa Maria dei Miracoli,
from Canto LXXVI by Ezra Pound
The “sirens” in question in canto LXXVI of Ezra Pound are not the four small marble figures on the balustrade at the end of the raised presbytery. The “sirens” are mythological beings, not angels. The have wings but they are not angels. You can see them on the richly carved low relief in the choir of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli.
Andrea Mantegna’s works have been mentioned as the probable model for the figurative elements. Even today some of the motifs remain a disturbing mystery in a church dedicated to the Virgin. Around 1485 the nereid and triton motifs were well known and liked in Venice.
We find them again in the reliefs on the bronze bases of the flag poles in Piazza San Marco (1505 -1506), where they form part of an intricate allegorical scene and, much later on, in Tintorettoàs cental painting for the Sala del Senato in The Palazzo Ducale. Their only significance in Santa Maria dei Miracoli is that they prove how much freedom of choice was left to artists working on the less visible parts of the building.