Venice – St. Mark’s – Dominant Ideas

You are by this time, I trust, in a position to understand the leading religious ideas which govern the arrangement of the decoration in St. Mark’s.

The Vestibule, or Atrium, theoretically supposed to be intended for the use of those who have not yet entered the church, (i.e., the unbaptised and enquirers or catechumens,) is decorated with very ancient mosaics (Byzantine in type) representing the chief facts of the Old Testament history. It represents the Jewish Church, previous to the New Dispensation. The series begins with the Creation, and ends (as usual) with the Fall of the Manna, which last is always regarded as typical of the spiritual food, that is to say, of Christ. The particular episodes selected for illustration are in every case those which mediaeval theologians regarded as foreshadowing the life of the Saviour, or the New Testament history. Precisely similar and almost identical scenes occur as illuminations in the 5th-century illuminated Greek Bible (fragmentary) in the Cottonian collection.

The main central line or axis of the Inner church, from the Door of St. Mark to the Apse at the E. End, is devoted on the other hand almost entirely to Christ and the chief facts of the Christian religion, (but in a subsidiary degree to St. Mark the patron.) Contrary to what one might expect, however, the Gospel story begins at the Apse, and ends by the main entrance. If you stand under the Central Dome, in front of the Presbytery, this fact will become quite clear to you. In the Apse which faces you, and which forms as it were the focus of the Basilica, closing the vista inward, you have the gigantic figure of the Redeemer himself. In the Eastern Dome, over the Presbytery, are represented Christ and the Prophets who prophesied of him. The arch, between this dome and the next, has the facts of the Infancy and Ministry. The Central Dome, over your head, shows the Ascension, with our Lady and the twelve Apostles. It is interposed here because of its central importance. Looking westward from the same point, the Great Arch between the two Transepts gives the history of the Passion and Resurrection : the side arches have the immediate episodes of the Gospel history. Thus the whole central area tells the life of Christ, culminating in its centre with the Ascension. In the Western Dome is the Descent of the Holy Ghost, with the Christian people. The mosaics on either side of it (in the Aisles) give the acts and martyrdoms of the Apostles. The last Great Arch has the Vision of the Apocalypse, and the Last Judgment. This main trunk or axis of the church is thus a brief epitome of the entire Christian doctrine—the preparation for Christ ; the Prophecies of Christ ; the life and Passion of Christ ; the Resurrection ; the Ascension; the Descent of the Holy Ghost; the Second Advent ; the Last judgment ; and the Life of the World to Come, in Paradise or in torment.

From another point of view, however, it is also devoted to St. Mark the Evangelist, to whom the church as a whole is dedicated, and to the other chief saints of the Venetian people. The Central Door, which leads to it, bears his name and image ; as you look up from this door, the principal object in front of you, behind the screen, is the High Altar, which contains his relics. In the apse are his mission to Aquileia and his connection with St. Peter. The chief mosaics to the L. of the Presbytery tell the history of his life and martyrdom; the chief mosaics to the R. of the Presbytery tell the story of the removal of his body to Venice. Christ and St. Mark, with the Madonna, are thus the leading chords : in the mosaic over the inner slde of the main portal we get these three figures significantly associated.

The line of the L. Aisle, which begins at the Door of St. Peter, ends in the Apsidal Chapel of St. Peter, the spiritual father of St. Mark. St. Peter is here the chief figure. The line of the R. Aisle, which begins at the Door of St. Clement, ends at the Apsidal Chapel of St. Clement, whose relics are preserved in its altar, but whose exact connection with this church I do not quite understand. These two lines have thus a clear reference to the Apsidal Chapels.

The North Transept, entered by the Door of St. John, had originally over it the image of that saint, whose history is represented in the Dome of the N. Transept. (His figure is still within above the portal.) The Chapel at its end was dedicated to St. John. Since the 17th century, however, the Chapel has been converted into that of the miraculous Virgin of Constantinople; and her (false) Byzantine image has been substituted over the entrance door for that of St. John. The symbolism of this portion of the church, originally Johannine, has thus been gravely disturbed by the increased modern devotion to Our Lady.

The South Transept, not now approached by any direct door, save a private one from the Doge’s Palace, had its Chapel originaily dedicated to St. Leonard, a saint of early importance at Venice, to whom many of the mosaics above still refer ; but as it has now been turned into a Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, the symbolism has been obscured here also. Its dome has four great local patrons, and four holy Virgins of Aquileia.

These are only a few brief notes on the central conceptions of the decoration ; those who care to observe closely for themselves the relations of the minor parts, and the distribution of relics and mosaics, will find that much light is thus cast upon the assemblage of saints or subjects in the various arches. In no part of the building is the grouping arbitrary, though it has often been made to seem so by modern alterations. Corresponding sides or arches have usually corresponding saints or episodes. By walking up each of the main lines from end to end, you will gain an increased sense of the relations of the component members ; and of the scheme of their symbolism. Most of the minor saints are those of the various Venetian parishes, or those whose relics are preserved in Venice.

As a whole, the Atrium gives the Jewish half of the Christian scheme ; the interior gives the Gospel half. The Old Testament is the vestibule ; the New is the completed church or full scheme of Salvation.

The separate minor portions of St. Mark’s may now be more briefly visited. Most important among them is the


The Cappella di Sant’ Isidoro is entered from the L. or N. Transept. (See plan.) Ask the Sacristan, who for a few sous will admit you.

The story of this chapel is best told in the words of the quaint inscription over the altar, which I translate in full as follows “The body of the blessed Isidore is enclosed in this present sarcophagus. It was brought from Chios by the Lord Domenico Michiel, famous Doge of the Venetians, in the year 1125, and remained laid by privately in this church of St. Mark until the beginning of the building of this chapel, erected under his naine ; which was begun during the Dukedom of the Lord Andrea Dandolo, famous Doge of the Venetians, and in the time of the noble gentlemen, Lords Marco Loredan and Giovanni Dolfin, Procurators of the church of St. Mark, and was completed under the Dukedom of the Lord Giovanni Gradonico, famous Doge of the Venetians, and in the time of the noble gentlemen, the Lords Marco Loredan, Nicolo Lion, and Giovanni Dolfin, Procurators of the church of St. Mark, in the year 1355, on the loth day of the month of July.” It thus owes its origin to the same great Doge who built and decorated the Baptistery.

The chapel is extremely dark, and can only be tolerably seen on a very bright day.

The Altar is occupied by the sarcophagus in which rest the remains of the Saint. He lies in sculptured effigy on its lid : a good piece of sculpture. The front of the sarcophagus is decorated with a figure of Christ, and of SS. John Baptist and another, unidentified. The two reliefs represent, to the L., the Saint being dragged by horses over the ground, and to the R. his decapitation. This is a fine work, coeval with the erection of the chapel. Notice also the angel with the censer, the beautiful symbolical designs on the under side of the arch, and the usual Annunciation in the spandrils.

The walls of the chapel are decorated with particularly handsome slabs of coloured marble and other stones. The *mosaics are all of a peculiar type, quite different in design and technique from those of the contemporary Baptistery, erected by the same Doge, Andrea Dandolo : those of the Baptistery seem to me to have been executed by Byzantine artists, (or artists thoroughly trained in the Byzantine school,) while these seem rather like the first attempts of indifferent native workmen, feeling their way doubtfully. They have lost the simple dignity and repose of earlier treatment with-out having attained to more modern freedom and sense of action. Nevertheless, they are so excellent in technical setting that hardly a stone of the mosaics has been misplaced, and we therefore see them at the present day essentially as they were left in the 14th century.

The lunette over the Altar has a figure of Christ seated ; to the L. is St. Mark, (church,) to the R., St. Isidore. (chapel.) Beneath it is the inscription already translated. The lunette opposite this one shows Our Lady and the Child, with, L., St. John the Baptist, and R., St. Nicholas in Greek ecclesiastical costume,—these (with St. Mark opposite) are the patron saints of the three Procurators mentioned in the inscriptlon.

On the ceiling, towards the wall of entrance, is the History of St. Isidore most quaint and interesting. Above, he sets sail for Chios, with his companion Amenio ; all the figures are named in the inscriptions ; then, he arrives at Chios, where he is hospitably entertained by Valeria and her daughter Afra ; St. Isidore and Amenio give thanks for their safe landing ; St. Isidore reasons with, and casts out, a devil ; Valeria and Afra are converted by his preaching ; he baptises Afra, nude, in the font. Below : ” How Numerianus sentenced St. Isidore”; observe the Roman soldiers with their shields ; ” How he was placed in a burning fiery furnace” ; note the wood-bearers : then, he is dragged at horses’ tails over the ground, the blood spurting out more copiously than artlstically ; finally, he is beheaded.

The mosaics of the window wall, (seen with the greatest difficulty except in a bright light,) show the bringing of the body of St. Isidore from Chios to this chapel. At the opposite side from the Altar, below, the entombment of St. Isidore ; above, Doge Domenico Michiel arriving at Chios ; then, a private priest, Cerbanus, steals the body of St. Isidore for his personal use, from the sarcophagus ; notice the horrid realism of the shrivelled corpse and skull of the Saint : the Doge reprehends Cerbanus for the theft, and sends him on shore ; the body is taken to the fleet, with great respect ; below, near the window, it is carried into St. Mark’s with due solemnity. Between the windows is a figure of St. George the Martyr. If you can get light enough to study these curious and unique works, the remarkable details will well repay you.


may be entered at any time ; the custode in charge of it perambulates the church, and has the word “Sagrestia” embroidered in very legible characters on his coat ; he will unlock the door for you for a few sous. The entrance is through the Chapel of St. Peter.

The magnificent room to which you thus gain access differs from all the rest of the church in the fact that all its decorations are throughout of the same period, and coëval with its erection. The ** mosaics are in the best Renaissance style, from designs by Titian and his pupils. The whole scheme of this decoration is admirable, and may be accepted as by far the best of the later mosaics. The technical work is perfect. The subjects, however, do not require elucidation : nor have they anything like the interest of the ancient designs. The great Latin cross which forms the central axis of the ceiling has a few figures which are self-explanatory. Do not suppose, however, that this fine specimen of Renaissance decoration is not worthy of close attention because I dismiss it with a few sentences.


is entered from the R. Transept : open daily, except festas, from 12 to 2 ; tickets, 25 c. each. It contains a large number of fine early cups and reliquaries. Also, an * episcopal throne of the 6th century, known as the Chair of St. Mark : it is of carved marble, Egyptian in workmanship, and doubtless brought from St. Mark’s at Alexandria. The principal subjects are St. Mark and Matthew, the symbols of the Evangelists, the Lamb, and some cruces ansatæ or Egyptian symbols of immortality, borrowed by the Alexandrian church from earlier paganism. Note particularly the Four Rivers of Paradise and the very Egyptian character of the trees. This chair was brought from Alexandria to Constantinople at an early date, and sent in 63o by the Emperor Heraclius to the Patriarch of Grado, whence it was transported in 1520. Canon Pasini believes that it was constructed to contain, and perhaps still contains, the wooden seat used by St. Mark when he presided over the infant church at Alexandria.


is seldom open except on St. Mark’s day, (April 25.) It is curiously labyrinthine, and architecturally older than any other portion of the building, being a part of the oldest church, burnt down in the loth century. The capitals of its columns are beautiful and full of interest.

Observe from the Piazzetta one portlon of St. Mark’s near the Doge’s Palace, high up, which has not been coated with marble, but exhibits well the simple original Byzantine style in naked brick-work.

In connection with St. Mark’s we may also notice the two immense * Granite columns in the Piazzetta, facing the lagoon. These enormous shafts, each consisting of a single block of wrought granite, one grey, one rosy, were brought from Tyre in 1126 by Doge Domenico Michiel, after he had captured that city from the Saracens, as trophies of his conquest, but lay on the Piazzetta till 1171 or 118o, owing to the great mechanical difficulties of raising them into position. They were then at last placed erect by a mediaeval engineer in their existing situation. Thus they are indirect memorials of the acquisition of Tyre by the Crusaders. Their beautiful broad bases, and still lovelier capitals, (probably carved in Venice itself in the 12th century,) form glorious specimens of Byzantine Romanesque sculpture. The one to the E. bears an ancient bronze figure (11th or 12th century) of the winged lion of St. Mark, a splendid piece of early native handicraft, the wings of which, however, are comparatively modern—indeed, the whole figure, though very ancient in type, has been much tinkered. The column to the W. bears a somewhat insipid figure of St. Theodore, the ancient patron of the Republic, conquering his dragon, which is here represented as a very unmistakable crocodile. This figure was erected in 1329, but is scarcely more than a mediocre specimen of the art of its period. It seems to be remotely derived from the Egyptian type of Horus on the crocodile.