Aerial view of Santa Maria di Assunta cathedral on Torcello island in Venice lagoon, Italy

Martin M303

Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta

Top choice in Murano, Burano & the Northern Islands

Life choices are presented in no uncertain terms in the dazzling mosaics of the Assumption Basilica. Look ahead to a golden afterlife amid saints and a beatific Madonna and Child, or turn your back on them and face the wrath of the devil gloating over lost souls in an extraordinary Last Judgment scene. In existence since the 7th century, this former cathedral is the lagoon's oldest Byzantine-Romanesque structure.

The restrained brick exterior betrays no hint of the colourful scene that unfolds as you enter. Of the mosaics, the earliest, dating to the 12th century, is the Madonna and Child rising in the eastern apse above the Apostles, standing on a field of Torcello poppies. To the right of her is another richly decorated chapel, showing Christ flanked by two angels and Sts Augustine, Ambrose, Martin and Gregory amid richly rendered symbolic plants: lilies (representing purity), wheat and grapes (representing the bread and wine of the Eucharist) and poppies (evoking Torcello’s island setting).

Saints line up atop the gilded iconostasis, their gravity foiled by a Byzantine screen teeming with peacocks, rabbits and other more fanciful beasts. Polychrome marble floors are another medieval masterpiece, with swirling designs and interlocking wheels symbolising eternal life.

An audio guide (€2) is available and it's also possible to climb the campanile (€5) for the heavenly view over the swampy islands, which gives a fascinating insight into what Venice itself must once have looked like.

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