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Venice is a city where the histories of art and religion are thoroughly intertwined. But you don't have to be the least bit religious (or even an art history major) to worship the art inside of a Venetian church. Even the average, everyday secular Joe can get profoundly entranced in the presence of the work of some of the world's greatest painters and artisans to ever have lived.
Of course, choosing where to go can be a bit overwhelming. To help you along, here's a shortlist of must-see churches. Be sure to dress accordingly—as a place of worship, shirts covering the shoulders are a must, as are clothes that cover the knees.
St Mark's Basilica (agustavop/iStockPhoto)
Anchoring St. Mark's Square, the heart of the city, this church is the only place to start. Guarded by the Golden Lion of Venice, St. Mark himself and a group of angels atop the structure, St. Mark's Basilica (or Basilico San Marco) has a rich history dating back to the early 11th century. So named for the city's protector St. Mark the Evangelist, you'll be mesmerized by the immense Byzantine domes configured like the Greek cross, gilded in 24 karat gold leaf. Intricate mosaic work from the Middle East portrays scenes from both the Old and New Testament and the life of the church's patron saint, including the legend of how St. Mark's body was smuggled out of Egypt and into Venice in pork fat.
The altarpiece is one of the most stunning works—a joint effort by workers from both Constantinople and Venice. Attention to detail even stuns as you look down, as the floor is also covered in intricate, circular mosaics in shades of clay reds, grays, browns and greens. Grab a latte in a cafe across the Piazza and join the throngs of tourists waiting to take in this spectacle—the majesty you'll find inside is well worth the wait.
Santa Maria della Salute (dinoforlena/iStockPhoto)
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
Perched on the edge of the Dorsoduro on the Grand Canal, the impressive architecture (and embedded figurative sculpture) of this domed church stands out as an imposing landmark on the Venetian landscape—but the vibe on the inside is equally as worthy of worship. Designed by architect Baldassare Longhena, "Salute" was erected in the 1600s as an act of devotion for sparing two-thirds of Venice from the plague, and remains dedicated to its patron saint, the Virgin Mary to this very day.
Upon entry, you're struck by the immense size of the rotunda. Next you'll notice the immense columns supporting the structure and regal high altar, which Longhena also designed, decorated with a Madonna and Child from the 13th century brought over from Crete, a giant gold crown looming overhead. A casual walk around the rotunda will allow you to contemplate works by famed Renaissance painters Titian and Tintoretto (including "Marriage at Cana"), as symbolic attribution to Mary abounds throughout. As with many places in Venice, the church closes afternoons between 12 and 3. Admission to the church itself is free.
Basilica dei Frari (via Yelp)
Located in a piazza in San Polo, this church contains some of Titian's great masterpieces (including the "Madonna di Ca' Pesaro", for church patron Jacopo Pesaro), as well paintings from Vivarini, Angeli and Palma the Younger. An immense golden altar with inlays by Giovanni Bellini will leave your mouth agape—and this church has 17 altars, each adorned with the works of painters of the time, like Bartolomeo Vivarini.
The magnificent, grandiose stone sculptures surrounding you won't be denied their moment of awe from their perches atop various shrines and columns. The church was named for the first followers of Francis of Assisi who made the pilgrimage to to Venice, and also hosts a series of classical music concerts—be sure to check the website for details.
Madonna dell'Orto (salparadis/iStockPhoto)
Located in the Cannaregio section of Venice (also home to the Jewish "Ghetto") and erected during the first half of the 14th century, this church was Tintoretto's local—so much so that he was buried here. You'll find ten of his paintings here, including the "Last Judgement" and the "Painting of the Golden Calf". But the Gothic architecture of the church itself is not to be denied. Topped with a dome, a statue of the Redeemer and adjacent bell tower, it's composed of brick and decorated with arches containing sculptures of the Apostles and the Madonna dell' Orto herself.
Inside, Greek marbled columns uphold a series of arches that create two aisles while allowing that remarkable Venetian natural light to dance around within. Legend has it the church was renamed for the Madonna after a dedication to St. Christopher because it was believed the Madonna sculpture by Giovanni De Santi performed miracles. It's open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday and it's free, but donations are strongly suggested.
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a journalist, copywriter and essayist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Find her on Twitter @SoapboxDirty.