My wife, Faith, and I recently visited Venice and as a part of that visit looked forward very much to seeing the many glorious paintings by Paolo Veronese (now known to Ascended Master students as Paul the Venetian) that are kept there. We frankly did not know even when we arrived in Venice about his local parish church, Chiesa di (the Church of) San Sebastiano. Just as we were leaving a central tourist office, Faith happened to see a small leaflet that merely mentioned it. But hearing of its importance to Paolo Veronese, we then proceeded straight there by water-bus.
Little did we know what an immense treat of the Spirit and of such glorious grace and splendour awaited us. We are not artists or art-experts, but shall do our best to describe this marvellous building. It can be assumed to have been his main place of regular worship (perhaps along with the great Basilica of Venice), and he lived nearby. A girl at the reception desk very kindly telephoned around for me, but so far as she could discover his place of residence is not known or no longer exists.
But it is in this church that Paolo spent much of his artistic life from the age of about 26 to 42, then continuing with the church on other occasions even until his laying down of the body. Or, to be more specific, much of the painting is on canvas and will have been done in his studio, but always with the church in mind. Then, once the paintings were in place, Paolo also painted and decorated around them in many places, so that almost the entire interior of the building is lined with his work – walls and ceiling.
The approach to the church, with Faith Tame standing on the bridge over the canal.
I’ve been a student of the Masters for many years, yet have never heard this church mentioned, so I thought I would share something about it with others. Some will know of the importance of Gorhambury (also known as "the White Temple") as the home of Sir Francis Bacon who went on to become the beloved Ascended Master Saint Germain. It does seem in order to consider that in many ways Chiesa di San Sebastiano holds a similar place of importance in the life of Paolo Veronese.
Disciples of the Ascended Masters know and love Paul the Venetian as the Chohan (Lord) of the Third Ray of God-Love. His service to humanity and to the world includes many facets, including the training of disciples in His Retreat in how to enhance all the arts to a state of Perfection and resplendent beauty. This training is undergone in His Etheric Retreat in the South of France, or in other locations, where disciples of His are trained in various arts between embodiments, or during the hours of sleep – or He may also inspire artists, perhaps unwittingly to them, as they create during their waking hours.
Paolo Veronese at around 40? Scholars are not in agreement, but this is a possible self-portrait by Paolo as it was
most unusual for him to paint such a detailed portrait of anybody. An idealised Venice of his day is in the background.
His life as Paolo Veronese (1528 - 1588) was the final embodiment of the Master and Chohan, from which lifetime he took his Ascension. And I felt I was able to tune in all the more to how in that lifetime, though he chose painting as his main means of artistic expression, his concern has always been for all the arts. Indeed, just as perhaps a purely personal viewpoint, it seemed to me that he took it as his role to put the consciousness of man and woman in touch with the Divine through means other than the purely religious. In other words, to bring the consciousness of humanity closer to the Consciousness of God by means of enhancing culture in general.
Detail from "Marriage at Cana". The figure on the left, playing the viola, is widely believed to be a self-portrait of Paolo.
Indeed, as a painter he is known to have been revolutionary in his day for the use of such newly bright and glorious colours, as well as for the introduction of more realism into art, whereas art beforehand had been comparatively staid, more merely symbolic, and some might say relatively expressionless. However, while walking the same alleys and canal-sides of Venice that he did, in the area where he lived, I felt that this is one thing He certainly desires to bring to pass for the Earth in all culture, all the arts, and in every cultural means of expression even though the method of expression (a sculpture, architecture, a work of music, a movie of beauty) may not be overtly religious or spiritual. All art and culture can be an expression of Heaven upon Earth, which aids in bringing the two into conformity.
You certainly get a sense of this from visiting Chiesa di San Sebastiano, which has been described as having "perhaps the most brilliantly colourful church interiors in all of Venice – all the work of one man, Paolo Veronese" (from Time Out Guide to Venice).
We also read of it: "The church is often praised as a perfect marriage of the arts, with architecture, painting and sculpture in complete accord. Veronese’s works are enhanced by lavishly carved ceilings and a galleried choir which adds to the sense of spaciousness. The paintings show Veronese in all his glory, exalting grace, harmony and serenity while indulging in occasional whimsy" (from Insight Guide to Venice).
There are no roads or cars in Venice, so you arrive at the church by a short walk on foot. Walking away from central Venice and toward the surprisingly quiet, placid outskirts, coming down one of the main but very narrow pedestrian "streets" you approach the small canal, Rio de San Sebastian. Stepping up and over the old pedestrian bridge, you enter the square, Campazzo San Sebastian, and the entrance to the church is right in front of you.
We were in Venice at the height of the tourist season, when the more famous areas such as St. Mark’s Square are teaming with hundreds and even thousands of tourists, and there’s hardly standing room on the water-busses which, along with water-taxis, are the only other means of transport other than walking. Yet Paolo’s parish church was literally empty when we arrived apart from a girl at reception and her friend. The heaving masses of tourism simply don’t seem to know of it – which is a blessing for any sincere visitor.
The first church on the site and its attached monastery date back to the late 1400s, but in just a few years neither proved large enough for the numbers of monks and worshippers. So the present church was begun in 1506, and completed at a rather leisurely pace in 1548. The exterior is somewhat sober, and Paolo had not yet arrived on the scene. The church was constructed partly under the direction of the prior, Bernado Torlioni from Verona, and it was not until late 1554 or the opening of 1555 that he had the finances for interior decoration. It was for this that he called upon the young artist, Paolo, who himself had only recently arrived from Verona. (Paolo’s actual name was Paolo Caliari, but he became more widely known as "Veronese" – Paolo the Veronese.)
Though only in his mid-twenties, Paolo was at work decorating the ceilings of the Doge’s (Duke’s) Palace, the place of government for all of Venice. Venice itself in that day was one of the great world powers by virtue of its powerful navy, its relative independence from Rome and the Pope, and its great success in trade.
For pilgrims treading in the steps of Veronese, I had known that the Doge’s Palace was important, as many of Veronese’s works are in there, and secondly there are some now in the Accademia Gallery. But nothing compares to visiting the church of San Sebastiano. Paolo was first asked to execute the paintings for the relatively small sacristy, and I do not know if Torlioni, his financier, had it in mind from the start that Paolo would paint the entire church interior. Perhaps he tried him out part by part. But the fact is that upon entering this building you are entering a veritable Temple of Paul the Venetian.
Here he painted or placed his paintings quite solidly for about fifteen full years of his life, but was then called later to still return again and again for more, and in fact died on either the 9th or 19th April, 1588, after contracting a short fever while even then "on the job" in San Sebastiano.
The sacristy ceiling, showing an oval painting of St. Mark. Photograph taken from underneath the
"Coronation of the Virgin". The decorative painting between the actual paintings is also by Veronese.
The paintings are by no means spaced around just here and there such as you find in an art gallery, but rather, in places, almost every portion of wall is a painting. Almost every inch of the ceiling consists of his paintings also, so that it is like stepping into a Heart of his Art. You stand there with his works everywhere – fifty-five paintings in all – and the effect is astonishing. From this it becomes so very clear that on many occasions a painting has to be seen in the actual place and position it was painted. And between the main paintings of the church, blocks of pure colour adorn every surface. Individual objects are secondary to the overall effect.
To be quite accurate, though the entire interior concept is evidently the work of the one man, he did not work alone. Most paintings are entirely his, but a few are anonymous, and a few are ascribed to named helpers. I am not knowledgeable enough to know whether he would have entrusted these helpers to impart their works from start to finish by themselves, but fancy that he must have given guidelines, the themes, or even sketched them. There is one painting by Titian, "St. Nicholas". And Paolo’s apparently much loved brother, Benedetto, also helped him. When they were old enough, so did Paolo’s nephew and Paolo’s two sons.
Obviously in an article of this length I cannot begin (nor am I qualified) to describe all fifty-five of the Veronese paintings kept safe together in this "Temple of Art". I shall try to give but a brief impression of the whole.
The paintings on the ceiling are at least as important as those on the walls (it helped to have been alone when we arrived, which may not often happen, as one could just lie on the floor, undisturbed, to look up). Nothing at all has been painted somewhere outside the church and then just "fitted in somewhere". The whole is a complete and deeply thoughtful conception.
Inside the Church of San Sebastiano
The ceilings are divided into geometric proportions with large squares or ovals prepared, into which specific paintings could be placed. But then between these larger paintings there were prepared smaller geometric spaces toward their sides or corners into which still other paintings fit. Then the spaces between all these paintings are filled with decorative stone- or woodwork of delightfully artistic relief, which itself is either painted with actual figures, or with blocks of gold and other color-tones. Most of the painting is on canvas, but there are many frescoes painted directly onto the stone, and even painting onto the woodwork.
None of the art created for San Sebastiano is intended to be an individual painting standing apart from the others and having nothing in relation to the whole. It appears that (sometimes in consultation with the prior and part-financier, Bernado Torlioni) everything is thematic, symbolism is everywhere, and moral stories are recounted as you pass from one picture to another. How deeply one should attempt to look or read into this symbolism is apparently not agreed upon by experts, but a useful guidebook in English can be purchased at the entrance, which gives some assistance as to the thematic meanings.
Entering the church, if one turns around, the inner façade has frescoes on either side, of Solomonic column friezes with figures of Prophets and Sibyls. High, high up on the ceiling are placed three great Veronese masterworks, one after the other as one walks down the nave. Around these three, on the ceiling he has also painted large oval spaces of decorations with flowers and fruit, and, as smaller paintings in their own right, eight angels quot;supportquot; the frames of two of the great works. In the four corners of the nave ceiling are depicted figures representing Hope, Charity, Faith and Justice.
"Esther crowned by Ahasuerus", 1556, nave ceiling.
The three large nave ceiling pictures, all done in 1556, are of stories from the Book of Esther, the Jewish heroine who saved her people from the fury of the Persian King Ahasuerus. The first is Repudiation of Vashti, central is Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus, and the trio conclude with Triumph of Mordechai.
On the one hand the paintings comment upon events of the day, such as the renewal itself of the San Sebastiano church and religious community, since before the appointment of the prior and financier Torlioni in 1542 there had been a long period of serious moral and disciplinary disorder. But the three also fit into what may easily be seen as another theme running through much of the art throughout the building. Esther is regularly seen in the Christian analysis as prefiguring the Virgin. The coronation of Esther at the centre of the nave ceiling echoes the earlier work the visitor comes across later, Coronation of the Virgin in the centre of the sacristy ceiling. With the Virgin coronation in the middle of each ceiling display, with other sub-themes elsewhere, it seems as if the church itself is artistically dedicated by Veronese to the crowning or victory of the Mother.
A portion of the sacristy ceiling
Six side chapels contain more paintings, two by Veronese (Crucifixion, and one of the Virgin and child), and others by his helpers and those of his school, and other artists. In one chapel, the Baptism of Christ is quite possibly by Paolo’s brother, Benedetto Caliari.
The church organ was commissioned in 1558, but unusually for a painter, Paolo himself designed its form and the shape of the doors enclosing it. He must already have had in mind what he was going to do. With the organ doors closed, upon them he has painted Presentation of Jesus at the Temple with the figures of the scene toward the bottom and a huge arch above them which "opens" when the actual doors are opened. The painting includes two magnificent pillars on either side which show his interest in architecture, and to the right we see a typical Paolo touch – a hound in the midst of this solemn Biblical scene.
Only when the organ doors are opened is there revealed on the inside The Pool of Bethesda. The perspective in this painting has the viewer at ground level, so that everything we see is in perspective "above" us. This device enables Paolo not to actually show the pool at all, but rather the various figures such as Christ and the healed paralytic, and the angel literally falling headlong out of heaven, but with healing hand extended. By not even showing the pool, all emphasis is upon the healing being derived from Heaven, and any pagan magic from the pool dismissed.
Inside the sacristy
Fifteen frescoes adorn the walls on both sides as we pass further down, and there are others on and above the arch of the main altar. Within the chancel, one on each side and at the front facing down the whole of the church, are three more great Veronese masterpieces. Prior Torlioni wished for these to be upon the theme of the martyr Sebastian, and Paolo complied. Though these canvasses count along with his other greatest works, they are less known (and less frequently portrayed in art books), presumably because fewer people make the pilgrimage to the church, and the paintings now in the great galleries of Paris, London and Venice are more frequently seen.
The action of the three huge paintings moves thematically from left to right. On the left we have Saints Mark and Marcellian being led to martyrdom. Family and friends are attempting to persuade the saints to avoid their fate by renouncing their faith, but St. Sebastian, in shining armour, persuades them onwards and points forward toward the right. The colours are not sombre but gloriously brilliant, and in typical Veronese fashion we see all manner of interactions between the figures, turbaned Persian-like individuals no doubt inspired by visitors to Venice in that day, and again the ubiquitous dog. (It’s tempting to believe this recurring hound, the same in a number of paintings, was Paolo’s own).
Detail from "Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints Sebastian, Peter, Catherine and Francis", 1560-2, chancel.
Facing us in the centre is Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints Sebastian, Peter, Catherine and Francis. Here Sebastian’s own martyrdom begins on earth below, but he and all earthly figures are looking up. A layer of cloud denotes the point where earth becomes heaven, and upon the cloud, surrounded by angels, the Virgin holds the Child, and cherubs, which are as typically with Paolo Veronese no more than faces with wings, as usual surround the Virgin. On the right wall we have Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in which, though the helpless figure meets his earthly end, Paolo nevertheless fills the canvas with a great array of detail, ablaze with colour and action.
Having stepped without any foreknowledge of what to expect into this Paolo Veronese wonderland, we had thought at this stage that we had seen all the church had to offer. But then Faith stepped through a doorway, explored down a short hallway, and found herself within the sacristy. This is a much smaller room than the large church, with the ceiling not far above your head, but simply everything from a height of about nine feet is a painting – all the walls and the entire ceiling.
One of the many paintings completely lining the wall of the sacristy. This one depicts Jacob's Ladder, and is by one of Paolo's helpers.
The sacristy ceiling is entirely Paolo’s work, and is quite special to see as it marks such an important turning point in his life. Before this ceiling he had been a relative unknown, in his twenties. Since he was himself to arrive in Venice from his home of Verona, he sent a letter of self-introduction to Prior Torlioni, also of Verona, and this led to the Prior choosing Paolo to be the artist for this new ceiling.
Detail of the sacristy ceiling. The famous "Coronation of the Virgin" is central, and to each of the
four sides, each in an oval, Paolo painted one of the gospel authors. This, I think, is St. Matthew.
The centrepiece was to be the great work, Coronation of the Virgin, and in an elaborate scheme Paolo surrounded this with oval depictions of the four gospel writers, the four cardinal virtues, and other elaborations. In all, the ceiling contains nineteen Veronese works of varying size. It was an instant success with all who saw it, and Paolo’s career took off as a result. In the Coronation Paolo begins the style he perfected for ceiling-work of three-dimensional perspectives, making the painting truly appear as if you are looking up and up into the heavens, the sky being cobalt blue.
Paolo was prolific, and his work is now housed in many of the art galleries of the world; but it was here at San Sebastiano that his career truly began, and he was back at work in the church when he contracted a sudden fever which ended his embodiment, so this church spans the work of almost his whole life.
Comparatively little is known of his personality and his life, but there are mentions of him here and there in various memoirs of the time. He is declared to have been a man of sweet character, amiable and generous, socially very lively, very affectionate towards his family, and greatly esteemed by all who knew him. He was a painter of prodigious facility and of untiring energy. He could also be very generous with his work: sometimes he only charged for his bare expenditure of time, and not for the actual work produced. He was fond of personal luxury, loved rich stuffs, horses and hounds, and, it is said, " always wore velvet breeches".
He drew everything from life, and with time came to own a wealth of satins, silks, and jewels with which to adorn his models. Thus courtesans became queens, the children of friends became pages, and relatives stood side-by-side in Biblical scenes. Painting had never been so brightly coloured or so rich in texture.
Paolo also perfected the art of creating paints which hardly, if ever, fade – an ability lost again to many who came after him, so that paintings even centuries more recent are, in Venice, now faded or darkened whilst the Veronese works are as fresh as if painted yesterday.
He left a good number of drawings still unpainted, so that for a time his sons continued to complete them and, with others, were a school known as the "heirs of Veronese".
Paolo's Coat of Arms
Most fittingly, Paolo was buried in this church, and his body lies toward the left-front corner near the entrance to the sacristy, beneath a tombstone set into the floor. Upon the stone is his coat of arms, consisting of two wavy, curved lines between two six-pointed stars (see photo). Upon the stone is written:
PAOLO CALARIO VERON
FICII ET SIIBI POSERISO
DECESSIT XIIII CALEN MAII
The bust of Paolo Veronese by Matteo Cornero. This must show the Master as he looked a
couple of years before he left his body. Photo copyright © Faith Tame 2005, used with permission.
Paolo’s brother is buried beneath another stone to the side, and overlooking both stones is a bust of Paolo by Matteo Cornero, ascribed to the seventeenth century. We’ve thus far been unable to discover anything more about Cornero, but find it hard to imagine the bust of Veronese can be anything but authentically lifelike as he looked in his final years. If Cornero knew him in the 1580s, he could still have been alive to do his bust in the 1600s; or Paolo’s sons may have given his description.
Another view of the bust of Veronese. Photograph copyright © Faith Tame, 2005. Used with permission.
Beneath the bust can be read, as best as we could make it out:
Paolo Caliano Veronen Pictoni
NATURAE AEMULO ARTIS MIRACULO
SU?ERST?E FATIS FAMA VICTORIO
The bust of Veronese with the Latin inscription visible. To obtain this view, you are standing upon his
tomb, which is set into the floor. Photograph copyright © Faith Tame, 2005. Used with permission.
The day after our visit to the church, as we journeyed along the Grand Canal that bisects Venice, we passed beneath a banner that was hung all along the bridge by the Accademia gallery that houses more Veronese works. In English, it said: "Art doesn’t have to be Ugly to be Clever".
The author by a nearby canal
Chiesa di San Sebastiano is in the square, Campazzo S. Sebastian, by the Rio (canal) di San Sebastian, in Fondamenta di San Sebastiano, in the Dorsoduro district of Venice. (Tel. 041 275 0462.)
It is very easy to find. Get off the main Grand Canal waterbus no. 1 at the Ca’ Rezzonica waterbus stop. From the stop, simply walk down the main pedestrian street right ahead which begins as Calle del Traghetto, and keep on walking. Eventually you come to the San Sebastian canal with the bridge across it, and the church is right there.
The church is usually open to visitors Mon-Sat 10-5 p.m., Sun 1-5 p.m., but is sometimes closed in winter at odd hours. Outside of visiting hours the church is still in full use for services, and be aware that people may enter for quiet, personal prayer even during the visiting hours. Judging from our visit, the church is not in any way a "tourist mecca", and blessedly retains its sanctity.
David Tame lives in England and is the author of The Secret Power of Music (Destiny Books, USA, 1984), Beethoven and The Spiritual Path (Quest, USA, 1994) and Real Fairies (Capall Bann, UK, 1999). He first discovered the stream of Ascended Master Teachings while in India in 1975, and in 1981 became co-founder of the English registered charity, The Summit Lighthouse (UK). He is presently associated with The Temple of The Presence. David welcomes correspondence, which should be directed to him through the webmaster of this site.
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