The 'Tintoretto church' was originally dedicated to St Christopher (a magnificent statue of whom stands over the main door), the patron saint of the gondoliers (who ran the ferry service to the islands from a nearby jetty). However, a cult developed around a large, unfinished and supposedly miraculous statue of the Madonna and Child that stood in a nearby garden. In 1377, the sculpture was transferred into the church (it's now in the chapel of San Mauro), and the church's name was changed to the Madonna dell'Orto - of the Garden.
It was rebuilt between 1399 and 1473, and a monastery was constructed alongside. The false gallery at the top of the beautiful Gothic façade is unique in Venice; the sculptures are all fine 15th-century works. But it is the numerous works by Tintoretto that have made the Madonna dell'Orto famous. Tradition has it that the artist began decorating the church as penance for insulting a doge: in fact, it took very little to persuade Tintoretto to get his palette out, and the urgent sincerity of his work here speaks for itself.
Two colossal paintings dominate the side walls of the chancel. On the left is The Israelites at Mount Sinai. Opposite is a gruesome Last Judgment. Tintoretto had no qualms about mixing religion and myth: note the classical figure of Charon ferrying the souls of the dead. His paintings in the apse include St Peter's Vision of the Cross and The Beheading of St Paul (or Christopher, according to some), both maelstroms of swirling angelic movement. On the wall of the right aisle is the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. The Contarini Chapel, off the left aisle, contains the artist's beautiful St Agnes Reviving the Son of a Roman Prefect. It is the swooping angels in their dazzling blue vestments that steal the show. Tintoretto, his son Domenico and his artistically gifted daughter Marietta are buried in a chapel off the right aisle.
When the Tintorettos get too much for you, take a look at Cima da Conegliano's masterpiece Saints John the Baptist, Mark, Jerome and Paul (1494-95) over the first altar on the right. The saints stand under a ruined portico against a sharp, wintry light. There used to be a small Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini in the chapel opposite, but it was stolen in 1993. The second chapel on the left contains, on the left-hand wall, a painting by Titian of The Archangel Raphael and Tobias (and dog) that has been moved here from the church of San Marziale. In a room beneath the bell tower, a small treasury contains reliquaries and other precious objects.
For an even larger dose of Tintoretto, head for the Scuola di San Rocco.
More information about tickets and passes in Venice.