The Sculptures On The Facades – Venice

IN the following attempt to investigate the principal or west facade, as well as the north and south lateral facades of St. Mark’s, it must be understood, that no remarks will be made on the architectural construction and decorations of the church, although it would not be impossible to enter upon such a discussion of this unique monument from fresh and altered points of view. To many among those who are accustomed to look on it as a superlative work of art, or, it may be, as one of the ” seven wonders of the world,” this course may appear strange. We may even seem to be straying from the subject altogether in thus ignoring architecture when proposing to discuss this wonder of architecture. In deprecation of such a charge, I beg to remark beforehand that it is only a lacuna in the art literature relating to St. Mark which it is here attempted to supply.

A slight examination of the reliefs on the facade is sufficient to show that they contain examples of the styles of eight different centuries, beginning with the Fourth. Several of them have inscriptions, but unhappily none with the names of the artists. Nor do the numerous descriptions of St. Mark’s which have been published give any clue whatever to the origin of the reliefs. Indeed, they scarcely ever mention them. F. Sansovino, in his Venetia citta nobilissima, only says that, in the middle of the Eleventh Century, Selvo, the thirtieth Doge, first covered the walls of the church with an incrustation of finissimi marmi, and had many columns conveyed thither from Athens, various islands of Greece and the Morea. A more detailed account of a single piece of Byzantine sculpture in St. Mark’s is given in the Cronica Veneta, published in the year 1736, where we read that ” at the side of the altar, in a side wall of the chapel of St. Zeno, is the marble relief of the Madonna with the Infant Christ, a bas-relief executed alla Greca, and underneath it a similar work in marble, representing an angel. The inscription on it declares that it was discovered by the Emperor Michael Palaiologus (1260-1283), and that the stone is alleged to be the same out of which Moses made the water to flow The stone was discovered by the aforesaid Emperor, and brought, as the inscription on it asserts, to Constantinople, from whence the Doge Vitale Michel brought it to Venice.” We see from this that after the completion of the interior the Venetians continued to collect Oriental reliefs for the adornment of the church.

To do full justice to the Byzantine sculptures on the facade of St. Mark’s, we must first inquire into their history. And since the printed chronicles and descriptions of Venice afford us no information, we are compelled to have recourse to the archives of the Republic. One chronicler, indeed, who might have given us the information from documentary evidence, contents himself with the following disappointing remark: ” If I wished to give the sources of the different reliefs with which St. Mark’s is adorned, I should be obliged to relate the history of all the expeditions ever undertaken by the Venetians.”

Unfortunately, it is only in isolated cases that we can now hazard any definite conjectures as to the origin of these treasures. Beneath the balustrade which protects the four horses there are five bas-reliefs, placed between the seven arches of the facade. Unequal in size, they are also unequal in artistic value; and their subjects are so different as to show plainly that it is only by chance that they have been placed together. Still in some cases, they form pendants. Those, for instance, at the extreme north and south ends of the facade represent two of the Labours of Hercules. In the one we see the hero in a mantle hanging down upon his back; while on his left shoulder lies the Erymanthian wild boar, which he is firmly grasping, with both hands held up over his head. In the second, his attitude is the same, but he carries the hind of Diana. That these two mythological representations were not originally designed for the facade of a church is self-evident. Out of the Twelve Labours of Hercules, the third and fourth, following the customary computation, have here been selected, and we may assume for certain that the tablets originally belonged to a complete series of the deeds of the hero. The remaining pieces, however, are not to be found in Venice; and from this we may conclude that the Venetians were probably not able to get possession of the entire cycle. Representations of the Labours of Hercules are not uncommon among the monuments of Greek and Roman art. But what lends a special and peculiar importance to the two tablets in question is the style in which they are executed. The firm drawing of the outlines, the very fiat modelling, and the quick movement of the figure, at once betray the hand of a Byzantine artist. The drawing is so correct, and the composition of the figure so skilful, that it is impossible to assign them to a time later than the Fourth or Fifth Century after Christ the age of Constantine and Theodosius, when the traditions of antiquity were still held in honour in the erection of public monuments. We are not afraid of being accused of exaggeration when we maintain that no city of the East, no museum in Europe, possesses Byzantine marble-reliefs so exquisite in conception and execution as these.

Two other reliefs, depicting subjects from the ancient mythology, and belonging to the Byzantine epoch of art, are to be found on the south facade of St. Mark’s. First, there is a woman standing upright, enveloped in a long tunic and bearing a crown on her head. A palm-branch is visible in her left hand, while her right, which is stretched out in front of her, holds a wreath. The emblems of the wreath and palm point to a Victory, while the crown is the distinctive mark of the tutelar goddess of a city. The figures of Victory of classic antiquity are winged, and are not so composed and dignified in their bearing as this Byzantine woman, whose solemn step recalls the archaic Greek representations of Pallas Promachos. This figure can scarcely have served for any other purpose, whether in Constantinople or any other capital of the East, than to adorn a triumphal arch. Secondly, on the same wall of the south facade is a relief representing the sun-god in a chariot drawn by three griffins, and in all probability dating from the Ninth or Tenth Century.

Among the Byzantine sculptures in the outer walls of St. Mark’s, there still remain two which represent not Christian, but mythological subjects. These mythological groups consist each of four medallions. The scenes depicted in them are partly taken from the models of classic antiquity, such as Amor riding upon a lion, and playing the flute; two eagles, one fighting with a snake, the other seated upon a hare; or a griffin attacking a deer. Others indicate an Asiatic influence, such as the curious group of four lions, placed two and two, facing one another, and with one head in common. Another of these medallions shows a boy with a drawn sword, fighting a lion; another, a gazelle, ridden by a naked man, with a sword in his hand. The meaning of these representations is very obscure, and they probably refer to popular traditions now fallen into oblivion.

The sculptures referring to Christian belief are, as might be expected, more numerous than the mythological representations on the facade of St. Mark’s, and although the subjects they contain are not, in the majority of cases, of an unusual character, they nevertheless require very careful consideration, being almost the only examples preserved to us of an art the monuments of which are rarely to be met with elsewhere. The principal doorway is ornamented by two bas-reliefs let into the wall, one on each side, and at first sight exactly alike. Each shows a knight, clad in a Byzantine coat-of-mail, and seated upon a kind of throne, with a sword across his lap, which he is in the act of drawing out of the scabbard. They are St. Demetrius, pro-consul and martyr of Saloniki, and St. George, the canonised slayer of the dragon, who suffered martyrdom in Nicomedia.

Of Byzantine reliefs containing single figures, there are to be found on the principal facade of St. Mark’s only a Madonna and a figure of the archangel Michael. These too, both in execution and conception, have a character entirely their own, and diverse from Western art. Whether we go to the painting of Cimabue at Santa Croce in Florence; or to the two world renowned pictures of the archangel by Raphael, in the Salon Carre of the Louvre; or to the equally popular painting by Guido, in the church of the Capuchins at Rome, Michael is always the same mighty hero, with foot advanced, trampling beneath him the dragon of the ancient mythology, transfixed in head or neck by the spear. In the Byzantine relief of St. Mark’s, on the contrary, the arch-angel stands before us in solemn repose, as though awaiting the command of his Lord. Two mighty wings are visible on his shoulders; his right hand grasps a globe with a cross upon it, the symbol of the earth; his left, a sceptre, or rather herald’s staff, such as we find borne by the messengers of princes as early as Homer.

No less interesting, even though unimportant from an artistic point of view, is the figure of the Madonna, which probably dates from about the Sixth Century. She is not associated with the infant Christ, but stands alone, upright, and stretching out both her arms in prayer, in the act of offering up intercession for those who commend themselves to her protection. This conception is entirely in accordance with the fresco paintings of the early Christian catacombs.

Among the single figures of the south facade, the most prominent are the four Evangelists, of almost life size. They are apparently productions of the Byzantine art of the Fifth Century. In their conception and execution there is nothing extraordinary. The Evangelists are continually occurring in Byzantine art, especially in illuminated manuscripts. But if we compare these with the reliefs, it is at once evident that from an artistic point of view the latter are far superior to all other representations of the same subject. Nothing can be more natural than the solemn deliberation with which these holy men are here writing down their narratives. The parchment roll or book in which they write, lies, in Oriental fashion, upon their knees. John is not, as in Western representations, a youth; but an old man with a long beard; for according to the tradition of the Church, he wrote his Gospel in extreme old age, and the Apocalypse in his earlier years; and accordingly, in the representation on St. Mark’s, he is writing his Gospel on a roll on his right knee, while a dosed book, evidently the Apocalypse, lies upon his left.

It still remains for us to describe the reliefs in which entire compositions are depicted. We may first mention some fragments belonging to the attica of an early Christian sarcophagus, which are let into the wall above one of the doorways of the principal facade. They contain eleven different subjects from the New Testament, such as the Annunciation of the Angels to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Miracle of Cana, and Christ between the Apostles Paul and Peter. We find an abundance of similar reliefs in the museums of the Papal Palaces at Rome, brought from the atria of the oldest basilicas, and, generally speaking, not inferior in artistic value to the fragments on St. Mark’s. But, notwithstanding, we must look on those of St. Mark’s as unique, because they are Greek work, and of a kind of which little or nothing else has survived destruction. The care bestowed on an operation so difficult and laborious as the carving of a great number of small figures, disconnected from the background, would imply that the sarcophagus from which the fragments were taken belonged to the tomb of some great personage a prince, perhaps even an emperor.

All that is known at the present day of Byzantine art after the Seventh Century presents it to us in an unfavourable light, and the late Byzantine sculptures in the facade of St. Mark’s confirm us in this judgment. We shall therefore here refer to only two of them, which merit attention on account of the peculiarity of their subjects. They are in the south wall. In the centre of one of them is represented a throne the heavenly throne of Christ, although Christ Himself is not represented as occupying it; but on the throne are set three symbols typifying His person, viz., a cross with six arms, a medallion containing the figure of a lamb, and a crown. On each side of the throne, and looking up to it, stand six lambs, and behind them, closing in the composition, are two palm-trees and four vases. As to the meaning of these symbols, all doubt is removed by the Greek inscription beneath the relief. The lambs are the ” holy apostles “; the lamb upon the throne is ” the holy Lamb.” Such representations are by no means uncommon among the oldest mosaics in the apses of the churches at Ravenna and Rome, which also show that the palm-trees are no idle accessory, but signify Paradise.

Another reproduction of a wall painting or mosaic is to be found in the second relief on the same wall. Here, as usual in historical representations of primitive Christian art, two different scenes are combined in the same composition. On the left is Abraham leading the boy Isaac by the hand. Isaac carries on his back the wood for the sacrifice; Abraham holds in his left hand a great vessel, in the shape of a bowl, and doubtless representing the patriarchal tinder box for the Fathers and theologians of the Church speculated much as to how Abraham kindled the sacrificial fire on Moriah. In the second scene, Isaac is lying bound upon the earth before a burning altar, while Abraham, standing behind him, lays his left hand upon Isaac’s head, and with face averted lifts the knife in his right hand, ready to deliver the fatal blow. Be-hind him stands a lofty tree, with a lamb below it, and amid the branches of the tree appears a hand, the usual symbol of the Voice of God, on which Abraham bends his gaze.

On the north side of St. Mark’s, near the entrance to the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, is a relief executed in porphyry. It represents four Oriental princes embracing one another in couples. These have given rise to the most various explanations, and are pointed out as objects of peculiar interest. Guides and guidebooks alike direct attention to them, and few visitors to the City of the Lagoons can have passed them by without notice. Why they should be thought worthy of such special attention (being, as they are, of very inferiour artistic value), it would be difficult to explain. Perhaps it is because they are close to a door through which people are continually passing, and are thus easily seen. They were brought from Ptolemais.

The decorations of the upper portions of the facade were completed as late as the Fourteenth Century, since the ornaments of that part are in the Gothic style and Byzantine sculptures are wholly wanting. The figurative ornamentation of the principal entrance is the work, probably not of Byzantine, but of native artists, and belongs, without the least doubt, to the beginning of the same century.

These sculptures deserve our thorough attention in more than one respect—not least because they represent the earliest efforts of Venetian sculpture. Venetian plastic art during the Fourteenth Century is almost wholly unknown outside the city; but any one who is intimately acquainted with the monuments in the churches of Venice cannot for a moment doubt that it was far superior to the painting of the same date, and that the great Venetian painters of the Fifteenth Century had more to learn from the sculptors than from the painters of their native state. It has been said that the first great master of Italian sculpture, Andrea Pisano, was the author of the oldest non-Byzantine sculptures on the facade of St. Mark’s; but this would be to do them too much honour. In admiring them it has hitherto unhappily been the fashion to stop short at a general survey, and we ask in vain why it is that the sculptures of the principal facade have never yet been described and explained. No other reason suggests itself for this than the extraordinary variety of invention and the great wealth of composition which they display. The visitors to Venice are not too idle or too superficial perhaps but, let us say, too busy, to spend their time in the examination of the details of such complicated compositions. And yet these compositions are, before all things, to the last degree remarkable in their details; still more so even than in their artistic finish. Design and modelling may have been brought to an equal or greater degree of finish; but the subjects here handled by Venetian artists are simply unique of their kind.

The three semicircular archivolts of the principal doorway, one within the other, are ornamented on the inner, as well as the outer surfaces, with compositions containing figures. The large external arch is adorned with rich foliage and roses, in the taste of the best AEgypto-Arabian ornamentation, and, as usual in early Christian monuments, proceeding from two vases. The spaces are filled up with eight holy men looking upwards to Christ, a beardless youth, at the summit of the arch. At the crown of the same arch is a medallion, with the Lamb of God, held by two angels; and below it on each side are twelve very remarkable representations of the handicrafts of Venice. First come the shipbuilders, then follow the vintners, occupied in drawing liquor from the vats. Then the bakehouse and the shambles, matched on the opposite side by a dairy, and by masons and shoemakers. These are followed by the hairdressers, and here we can see the dandies of ancient Venice having their hair pressed with curling-irons. Next comes coopers, carpenters, smiths, and many fishermen, who are placed opposite the shipbuilders. The meaning of the figures on the outer side of the smaller internal archivolt is more enigmatical. At the apex is seated a woman in antique costume, with her feet crosswise upon the ground. In each hand she holds a medallion, and beside her stand or sit sixteen women with loose flowing hair, the majority having scrolls in their hands, which once probably bore their names. These are undoubtedly personifications of virtues. Here, for instance, is a youthful woman with flowing locks, tearing open the jaws of a lion with her hands, and representing Strength. There is Justice, holding a pair of scales in her right hand. A third is Love, with a crown upon her head. The inner side of the arch is filled by twelve representations of the months, in the style then in vogue for ornamenting illuminated manuscripts and calendars, and showing how people for the most part employed themselves in Venice during the different seasons.

To the figures on the inmost archivolt, no religious or theological signification can be attached; but it is perhaps precisely on this account that they are so very interesting. A cock is sitting upon a vine, pecking a bunch of grapes, while a fox looks up longingly from below ; a wolf is seen pursuing a lamb and an eagle clutches a hare. Round these scenes runs a band of foliage, issuing from a woman reclining on the ground, and offering her breast to a serpent and a man. “Mater terra” is the explanation of this enigmatical figure which we find in several Italian manuscripts of the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Centuries; and we may therefore conclude that this representation possibly borrowed from the Northern, in no case from the ancient classic mythology had already found its way elsewhere into Italy. How proud the citizens of Venice formerly were of the adornment of the facade of their church is clearly proved by the fact that they placed a view of it in mosaic above one of the sidedoors of the principal entrance. This is the sole Byzantine mosaic still remaining there, although at one time the whole of the lunettes were ornamented by them.

The high opinion of the Byzantine reliefs of the facade entertained even by the foremost masters of the Renaissance is proved by Gentile Bellini’s great picture still preserved in Venice, which represents the procession, with the relics of the cross, in the square of St. Mark’s, and in which the whole width of the background is occupied by the facade of the church, reproduced in every detail with marvellous precision.