Everywhere you look in Venice, you see the symbol of a winged lion, which represents the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. St. Mark was among the earliest founders of the church, the man who wrote down what is considered the oldest of the 4 gospels, the book of Mark. According to tradition, he went to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and founded the first Christian church in Africa. After years of ministry there, he was martyred and buried in Alexandria, where a church commemorating his life and service was built and used for centuries.
So what does this have to do with Venice? If you haven’t watched “Francisco’s Venice” on YouTube yet, you should (linked from the last post). Venice, still early in its history but quickly growing in power as an important center of trade, was in bad need of a patron saint in the 800s. In the middle ages, relics held a special place in the church. A bit of bone or an object connected to a saint lead to vast pilgrimages and increased status. Every established city had a cathedral and a relic, but Venice was still pretty new, built on wooden poles buried in the Venetian lagoon. They wanted a high-profile saint to embody their city, so the Venetians stole one.
Legend says that 2 Venetian traders in Alexandria took the remains of St. Mark and smuggled them out of Alexandria by hiding them in pork, a meat that the Muslim guards wouldn’t touch. They brought them back to Venice, and housed them in a shrine built to St. Mark. Over the centuries, St. Marks has been built up to one of the most elaborate and unearthly cathedrals on the planet. The present building in Venice was dedicated almost 1,000 years ago; twice as old as the St. Peter’s Basilica we see today. Venice was a powerful and ridiculously wealthy trading empire during the middle ages and the Renaissance, and with each conquest elsewhere statues and columns were taken back to Venice and added to the Basilica. Artists were constantly at work here, adorning the entire inside with mosaics, gold and jewels. For centuries, wealthy Venetians vied with each other in their donations to the continual beautification of the church.
To start with, St. Marks Basilica has a totally different layout than other prominent Italian Cathedrals. It’s design is Byzantine, based on the square shape of a Greek cross in what is traditionally an orthodox form. It doesn’t have a single large dome on the top, but rather 5 smaller mosque-like bulbed domes. Venice controlled all trade between east and west for a long time, so it’s understandable that they borrowed the form of the Churches in Constantinople. One of the most famous features of the church is the Triumphal Guadriga, or Horses of St. Mark. You can see them above the central door and largest arch in the picture above, 4 huge bronze horses. (Today, the ones you see are copies, and the real ones are protected inside the church.) They were brought here from Constantinople in 1204 after Venetian soldiers in the 4th crusade sacked the city. They are old, and were part of a huge Roman complex there since ancient times. Debate rages on if they were made in ancient Greece or as a Roman copy, but either way, they are some of the only ancient bronze statues to survive to today. Napoleon liked them so much that he took them to Paris in 1797, but they were returned years later.
The nickname of St. Marks is Chiesa d’Oro, or the “Church of Gold”. When you step inside you can see why. The entire inside is gleaming with gold and mosaics and the effect is dazzling. Over time, each of the Doges (dukes of Venice) added to the Basilica, making it one of the most eclectic buildings anywhere. The mosaics were added over 7 centuries, so if you look closely many differing styles are represented. At the high altar of the church is the Pala d’Oro, or the “Golden Cloth”. Considered one of the most impressive examples of Byzantine art, the Pala d’Oro is a large panel depicting the life of St. Mark. It’s covered in gleaming gold and contains 1,927 gems. It really is difficult within the Basilica of St. Marks to grasp what you are seeing. While it’s a sacred space dedicated to the patron saint of Venice, it’s also a prime example of how insanely wealthy and powerful the city of Venice was.