Forty-four

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Abside: “Virgine orante”

12th-Century in the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato
Murano, Venice

The islands of Venice hold much to explore architecturally, but what is perhaps most intriguing is the art each building contains — the murals, engravings, mosaics that cling to the walls, decorating and illuminating the cavernous interiors of the Byzantine churches. The church of Santi Maria e Donato was rebuilt in the twelfth-century and, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this mosaic covers the apse of the church. The Virgin stands vastly above, huge but serene, praying – orante – with palms displayed: a gesture of openness, rather than hands together in the traditional prayer position. The long fingers and cool grey of skin stand out against the warmth of gold and the intensity of blue, drawing us to the humanity of the figure, the tender emotion of the hands and the face . The simplicity of the stance is echoed in the restraint of colour; we have only blue and gold, though each is deeply poignant. The blue is intense in each fold of her cloak, bright despite is age, and evocative of the sea and rivers that run nearby. The gold is glittering in its intricate mosaic glory: a thousand tiny tiles making the gleaming sky; illumination that becomes part of her halo, part of the Virgin, as it is picked up by the threads that line and hang from her cloak. Such delicacy is hard to discern in a photograph; the detail of these Byzantine mosaics is astonishing, making these interiors well worth seeking out.

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