Sean Scully delivers sermon of stripes at Venetian church

The Irish-born painter and printmaker will transform every corner of the 16th-century San Giorgio Maggiore church with new paintings, sculptures and drawings during the Venice Biennale

Wall 3
Wall 3, 2017, by Sean Scully.
(Image credit: © The artist)

Unstoppable, the excellent BBC documentary on Sean Scully that aired in April, charts the Irish-born abstract artist’s rag to riches rise, his outsider status in art world, his complex private life and his Catholic roots. Not since his primary school days at a convent in London, will the 73-year-old have found himself so regularly in front of the altar as he does next month, with the opening of a solo exhibition, entitled ‘Human’, at San Giorgio Maggiore church during the 58th Venice Biennale.

New sculptures, paintings, drawings, and watercolours inspired by the monks, their vast collection of manuscripts and the famous church itself (designed by Andrea Palladio in 1575, it is one of the city’s finest) will go on show. They occupy every nook and cranny; Opulent Ascension is a ten-metre high sculpture of stacked frames wrapped in felt, which rises up through the central dome. In the choir behind the altar sits Scully’s vast manuscript of watercolours, while eight paintings from his abstract Landline collection form a procession to the water outside.

‘In many of my painting there is a ladder-like motif,’ says the artist, who has often claimed his work can serve as a conduit between the physical world and the spiritual one. Raised a Catholic, the ecclesiastical location of the show is loaded, he says, ‘But we have had history, so everything is loaded, isn’t it? I’m not a purist. I don’t see the materialism of the church, the robes and opulence, as a contradiction.’ Additional works are scattered throughout the island’s gardens and the church’s adjoining buildings. Among them is a candelabra that holds one giant candle and a triptych entitled Madonna of his son and fourth wife. ‘It’s a very atmospheric space; the works create a powerful sense of silence,’ says Scully, who has also included the monks in his production. As the island’s only residents, they are cooking a dinner of their homegrown produce on the opening night.

San Giorgio Maggiore Opulent Ascension

San Giorgio Maggiore Opulent Ascension, 2019, by Sean Scully. 

(Image credit: © The artist)

Madonna Triptych, 2018, by Sean Scully

Madonna Triptych, 2018, by Sean Scully. 

(Image credit: © The artist)

Window Beneath, 2017, by Sean Scully

Window Beneath, 2017, by Sean Scully. 

(Image credit: © The artist)

Landline Black Veined Oisin, 2017, by Sean Scully

Landline Black Veined Oisin, 2017, by Sean Scully. 

(Image credit: © The artist)


‘Human’ is on view 11 May – 13 October. For more information, visit Sean Scully’s website


Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
30133 Venice


Emma O'Kelly is a freelance journalist and author based in London. Her books include Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat and she is currently working on a UK guide to wild saunas, due to be published in 2025.