Now, enter the north transept. Walk along its west or L. hand Aisle till you reach a little chapel at the extreme end, closed by a low marble screen and an iron gate. This is the Cappella dei Mascoli, so called because it was the meeting-place of a Guild composed of men alone. It is dedicated to Our Lady, and its full title is Cappella della Madonna dei Mascoli.
The mosaics on the roof, by Michele Giambono, were begun in 1430, and form fine examples of 15th-century work ; they show the early Renaissance tendency, and are thus transitional between the mosaics of the Byzantine school on which we have hitherto for the most part concentrated our attention, and those of the 17th century, some examples of which we have already examined on the exterior, while many more will occupy our time hereafter. The chapel being dedicated to Our Lady, the subjects represented on its walls are naturally five of the chief incidents in her history. The series begins on the L. side of the roof with the Birth of Our Lady ; St. Anna, as always in this subject, is in bed ; St. Joachim, close by, superintends the washing of the infant ; to the R. are the usual women visitors. The whole takes place in a splendid late Gothic semi-Renaissance palace. To the R. of this is the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, which may be instructively compared with the famous Titian in the Academy ; L., St. Joachim and St. Anna ; the little Virgin mounts the steps and is received by the High Priest at the doors of a magnificent late-Gothic Temple, with Renaissance decoration. On the window wall, Annunciation, its component figures divided by the window. On the R. side of the roof ; L. compartment, the Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, which takes place (as always) under a splendid arcade, entirely Renaissance ; to the R., St. Zacharias is seated as a spectator. R. compartment, the Death of Our Lady; her new-born soul is received above by Christ, in a mandorla of glory. All the elements of the scenes are conventional. Study well these five but, alas, very much restored mosaics as admirable examples of transitional workmanship, unfortunately tampered with. On the centre of the ceiling, Our Lady and the Child, with her royal ancestor, King David, and her chief prophet, Isaiah. The symbolism is full of veneration for the Blessed Virgin.
The altar- piece consists of a statue of Our Lady, in a Gothic niche, between St. Mark and St. John the Evangelistthe latter being Our Lady’s adopted son, and also the patron of the N. Transept.
The central arch of the arcade (supporting the gallery) in the Aisle which lies just outside this chapel, has on its under side good mosaics of St. Justina and St. Marina. On the tier between the chapel and the main transept is a fine Byzantine relief of Our Lady. Over the door of access from the Atrium into this transept is a figure of St. John the Evangelist : this entrance being known as St. John’s doorPorta di San Giovanni. The mosaics of the North Dome, (best seen hereafter from above,) have also reference to the history of this Evangelist, displaced to make room for the growing cult of the Madonna.
Before proceeding any further with the examination of the lower portion of the church, I recommend you next to mount the staircase which leads to the Gallery, both exterior and interior. The sacristan (who is generally lounging about the Nave) opens the door (to the L. of the St. Mark portal or main entrance from the Atrium into the church) for 30 centimes per person.
Pay beforehand. Mount the steep staircase and go first to the Exterior Gallery. Here you can observe well the four famous Bronze Horses, still covered with abundant traces of gilding. From this point also you can note the sculpture on the archivolt of the main arch, with eight figures of patriarchs and prophets, named on the pedestals.
Proceed first to the lt., (with a good view over the Piazza,) and turn the corner towards the little Piazza dei Leoni, where you can more closely observe the Gothic figures on the pinnacles of the North Façade. They are arranged in a somewhat odd order, (beginning from the L.,) of Hope, Temperance, Faith, Prudence, Charity, the two cardinal virtues being thus interposed between the three theological. This is also the best point of view for the decorative detail (foliage, prophets, etc.) of the Gothic additions.
Next, proceed past the Horses again, along the West Front, as far as the S.W. corner, over the little portico, which gives an admirable view of the South Façade, with its Byzantine pillars, pierced stone-work, and Gothic additions. Excellent outlook on the Piazzetta and the granite columns. As you are passing along the West Front, on your way back, observe a little mosaic of St. Nicholas in a niche, bearing the name of its artist, Ettore Locatelli, (about 1605.)
Now, re-enter the church. The great arch by which you enter has on its under side 16th and 17th century frescoes in the centre, (after a cartoon by Tintoretto,) representing the Last Judgment, or rather what is called the Preparation of the Throne preceding it,;–Our Lord between the Blessed Virgin and St. John : beneath, the Cross en-throned among the instruments of the Passion: Adam and Eve and Cherubim adoring. Below, south side, half of the Apostles, on clouds ; then, under them, Paradise, with the Penitent Thief in the lower right-hand corner : north side, above, the rest of the Apostles ; below, the condemned, with Judas hanging himself, just opposite the Penitent Thief.
The arch next to this, and a little higher in level, has the Vision of St. John in the Apocalypse, with St. John sleeping; the Seven Golden Candlesticks; the Angels of the Seven Churches of Asia; St. Michael and the Dragon ; the Supper of the Lamb ; the Woman clothed with the Sun, and other episodes of the Apocalyptic Vision : all by the Zuccati. The order and arrangement of all these mosaics will be explained hereafter.
Return back towards the head of the stairs by which you entered, and proceed by the outer gallery of the North Aisle. Stand above the long north arcade, in order to view the FIRST DOME, the Dome of the West Arm or Nave. Its subject is the Descent of the Holy Ghost. In the centre, the Spirit descends as a dove upon the twelve Apostles ; below, between the sixteen windows, are various races, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc., represented each by one man and one woman in what the mosaicist believed to be the costume of their country ; all are listening to the Apostles speaking to them in their own tongues. Beneath, in the pendentives, are four majestic angels, singing the ” Holy, Holy, Holy !” All these are in the style of the 13th or 14th century.
This arcade is also the best point from which to observe (with an opera-glass) the beautiful decorative sculpture on the parapet of the gallery opposite.
In the arch behind you, (North Wall of the N. Aisle,) above the lovely youthful Byzantine Christ, is a representation of Paradise, of the 17th century ; over it, the trial and martyrdoms of St. Peter and St. Paul : after cartoons by Palma. I do not attempt to give all the subjects of these later mosaics, partly because of their number, and partly also because they are almost always self-explanatory, or sufficiently explained by their Latin inscriptions.
Continue on to the small compartment in the angle between the Nave and the North Transept. This is the best point of view for one-half of the great arch between the Western and Central Domes. It represents, below, the Kiss of Judas, and Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns : Pilate bears a roll with the question, “Shall I crucify your King ?” answered by the Jew to the L., ” Crucify Him !” Above, the Crucifixion, with Our Lady, St. John, the Maries, and Roman soldiers : Longinus piercing the side, etc. In the centre of the arch, the Maries at the Sepulchre. (The remainder of this arch is best seen from the opposite gallery.)
This station is also one of the most satisfactory for observing the great CENTRAL DOME ; its subject is the Ascension. In the centre, Christ is borne aloft in a firmament by four angels ; beneath, second tier, over the altar arch, stands *Our Lady, dark-robed, a most beautiful figure, attended by the two angels who say, ” Why stand ye here?’ etc. All round are the twelve Apostles, divided by trees of various patterns to symbolise the Mount of Olives. The rhyming Latin verses are excellent. Beneath, third tier, between the windows, are the Virtues and Beatitudes, (beginning to the R. of Our Lady,) in the following order : Temperance, Prudence, Humility, Kindliness, Penitence; (to the L. of Our Lady), Courage or Fortitude, tearing open the lion’s jaw. The other figures will be better observed from other standpoints. In the pendentives are the four Evangelists writing their Gospels ; beneath them, figures of the Four Rivers of Paradise, named as Gyon, Euphrate, Tygre, Fison. (Recollect that on the main façade the Rivers of Paradise similarly stand beneath and symbolise the four Evangelists.) This grand central dome is well worthy of the noble position it occupies.
Now, proceed along the outer gallery of the North Transept. The arch overhead tells the story of the Life of Our Lady (from the apocryphal Protevangelion) in 13th-century mosaics (see Mrs. Jameson, Legends of the Ma-donna). The centre is occupied by a fine Greek cross. The story begins on the L. hand side, and runs round on the upper level first. L. side, above, L. compartment, St. Zacharias enters the temple to place the wands of the various suitors, the budding of one of which will miraculously determine the Virgin’s husband : R. compartment, the marriage of Our Lady to Joseph by St. Zacharias ; the little Virgin is here represented as a child about twelve years old. Opposite, or R. side, above, L. compartment, the Annunciation, Mary drawing water at a well meanwhile : R. compartment, the High Priest presents Mary with a vase of pigment, wherewith to dye the veil of the Temple. Now, take the lower level, beginning again on the L. as beforeL. compartment, the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth (Mary’s name ignorantly restored as Hanna) ; R. compartment, Joseph, being an austere man, reproaches the Blessed Virgin. R. side, L. compartment, the angel warns Joseph in a dream that Mary has conceived of the Holy Ghost : R. compartment, Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to be taxed The story continues on the main wall under the arch, opposite you, below the windows. The angel warns Joseph to flee into Egypt ; the return to Nazareth (as described in the Latin verse ; otherwise, one might have taken it for a flight into Egypt) : Christ among the doctors in the Temple. This curious series deserves close study. Its Latin inscriptions are quaint and crabbed, but full of meaning.
This part of the gallery is also the best point for observing the great NORTH DOME, which contains the history of St. John the Evangelist (formerly patron of this part of the building) : the raising of Drusiana, Stacteus on his bed, the overthrow of the temple of Diana, and other miracles, told in relatively few figures. (The light here is seldom satisfactory.) On the pendentives are the Four Fathers of the Church, fine 17th-century mosaics : St. Ambrose is early.
The end wail of the North Transept has a Tree of Jesse. The Patriarch lies sleeping below, and from his body springs a genealogical tree of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady herself occupying the topmost branches. (16th century.)
From this point, some more of the Virtues and Apostles in the great Central Dome can be well observed.
Now return along the whole length of this gallery, till you are past the spot by which you entered. Mount the little steps, cross the wide gallery by the large window, (under the Last Judgment,) and enter the gallery of the South Aisle.
Pass along this gallery till you reach the middle of the arcade which separates the Nave from the South Aisle.
On the wall opposite you, (above the beautiful Byzantine Madonna,) is a large continuous mosaic of the Agony in the Garden, representing Christ praying ; His return to the sleeping Apostles ; His second prayer; His chiding of Peter; the angel with the cup (no cup now visible); and His saying, ” Sleep on,” all rudely simple.
The arch over your head has early mosaics of the miracles and deaths of the Apostles. On the L. side of the arch, above, St. James the Lesser is cast from the tower, (to the L. are the Jews, to the R. the Pharisees,) and the Beheading of James. R. of this, burial of the Apostle. Below, St. Philip overthrows the statue of Mars, and drives away the demon (in the shape of a dragon) which inhabited it, (legend given in my Guide to Florence, Santa Maria Novella ) R. of this, he preaches to the Scythians ; further R. his burial. On the R. side of the arch, above, St. Bartholomew preaches in Upper India ; the priests accuse him ; the flaying of St. Bartholomew. Below, St. Matthew preaches in Ethiopia ; the king of the Ethiopians condemns St. Matthew to be beheaded at the altar. On the window wall, (above the Agony in the Garden,) ill seen except on a bright day, St. Simon and St. Jude overthrow the statues of the sun and of the moon, and are martyred accordingly.
Now pass on along the gallery in the same direction till you reach the top of the arcade which separates the South Transept from its Western Aisle. The west wall of the Transept, to your R. as you walk, is covered by one of the most ancient and interesting **mosaics in the whole buildingperhaps the very oldest of all. It represents the discovery of the body of St. Mark, which had been lost after the fire of 976. When the existing church was completed in 1094, and about to be dedicated, the Doge could not tell what had become of the sacred corpse, and instituted a fast for its recovery. To the L. the Patriarch officiates at the altar of this very church, whose interior is seen in rude diagrammatic section, with its five domes, arches, and galleries. A deacon holds the book. Behind the Patriarch the Doge, (Vitale Faliero,) marked by his title of Dux, bows in prayer; to the extreme L. the Venetian nobles and people kneel in attitudes of prostrate supplication. This mosaic thus tells the tale of the solemn fast for the recovery of the saint’s body. The mosaic to the R., evidently a little later, shows a similar view of the church, this time rather more in perspective, though still in section and very diagrammatic. A pillar to the extreme R. has opened in answer to the prayers, and exposed the lost sarcophagus of the Evangelist. The Patriarch stands by it near him the Doge, (again marked as Dux, and with a simple early ducal cap, different from that of later ages 😉 beyond are nobles, ladies, and children, the latter ill represented, one wearing a crown. I advise you to study every detail of these extremely naïve and tentative but very beautiful and touching works. They show well the interior of the church in 1094, and also the costumes of the period.
This is likewise a good point from which to view the Southern Dome and its surroundings. It contains only four figures of four important local saints–St. Blaise, (who has two churches in Venice,) St. Leonard, (whose chapel was just beneath,) St. Nicholas, (who lies at the Lido,) and St. Clement, (whose chapel is one of the external apsidal pair.) In the pendentives are figures of four women martyrs, known as the Four Great Virgins of Aquileia, (mother-city of Venice:) St. Dorothy, (particularly beautiful,) St. Thecla, (16th century,) St. Euphemia, and St. Erasma. These mark the connection of Venice with the old Patriarchate on the Latin mainland.
The arch between this dome and the central one has mosaics of scenes from the Ministry of Christ ; visible from this arcade are, above, the Temptation in the Wilderness ; the Devil, as a black-crowned angel, offers Christ stones to make into bread ; places him on a pinnacle of the Temple; leads him on to an exceeding high mountain ; is discomfited, and flies away, (with good dramatic action 😉 angels come and minister unto him. Below, the Entry into Jerusalem, with children and others casting their clothing before the Saviour, who rides on a white ass ; behind him, the Apostles ; in front of him, Jews and the gate of Jerusalem. (The interdependence of all these scenes is explained later.)
Now, look across the Transept to the wall with three windows, just opposite you. This contains, above, uninteresting mosaics of Peter walking on the water, the paralytic with his bed, etc. Beneath these are two tiers of subjects relating to the life of St. Leonard, whose chapel, (now that of the Holy Sacrament,) originally stood below, while his image is found on the great S. Dome, just above it. These works, though late, are interesting through their associations with the saint, now dispossessed, who gave his name to the transept they represent, above, St. Leonard held at the font by King Clovis ; St. Leonard healing the Queen ; St. Leonard distributing alms to beggars : below, St. Leonard making water gush forth miraculously; St. Leonard striking off fetters from prisoners, (whose patron saint he was St. Leonard, after his death, appearing from heaven to rescue a prisoner, a figure which may very probably have suggested Tintoretto’s famous St. Mark, now in the Academy. Re-member St. Leonard when you visit the latter.
The arch above this series of frescoes has transitional works, representing Christ’s miracles of healing.
The S. window is a rose or wheel, with Gothic tracery. A few other Gothic elements, all intrusive, may be found in other parts of the building.
From the gallery above the arcade which separates the South Transept from the chapel (once St. Leonard’s) of the Holy Sacrament, (if open,) you can see well the other two figures in the S. Dome, and the remainder of the arch between the Central and S. Domes, representing the Last Supper and Christ washing the feet of the Apostles. Various parts of this gallery are also good stations for observing the other figures of Apostles and Beatitudes (all with their names marked) on the great Central Dome. You must make these out from various points of view, with an opera-glass.
Utilise these galleries, too, for examining closely (from near by) one or two mosaics at the level of the eye, in order to perceive the way in which the component pieces are arranged, especially in the treatment of faces and garments. The technique of the mosaics may be traced onward from the early Byzantine style, through the chapel of St. Isidore (very peculiar) and that of the Mascoli, to the very perfect workmanship of the Sacristy, the culminating point of this art, viewed as a handicraft.
As you return, pause at the corner by the gallery of the South Aisle, (near the words ” Lapis angularis,”) in order to observe the other half of the great arch between the Western and Central Domes. It represents, above, Christ rescuing souls from Hades, and, below, the Resurrection, with the Maries and the doubting Thomas. The inter-dependence and relation of all these subjects will be explained later.
This corner is also the best point of view for the beautiful figure of *Gyon (Gihon), one of the Rivers of Paradise, on the pendentives of the Central Dome. Other such points I leave to the reader. Stand long and examine each detail separately.
After having thus observed the mosaics visible from the Gallery, you may profitably resume your examination of the ground floor of the church.
Begin with the North Transept. Here, we have already looked at the West Aisle and the little chapel of Our Lady of the Mascoli. The central portion of the Transept contains nothing of special interest except the Dome. The East Aisle of the Transept, however, (formerly the Chapel of St. John,) has been railed off as the Chapel of Our Lady, who is at the present day (I speak of visible facts only) the central object of veneration in the whole Basilica. The entire space in front of this chapel is therefore constantly thronged with votaries from morning till night, under conditions which make it difficult to examine the works of art it contains without grave indelicacy. Look at it cursorily.
The central object is a great canopy or baldacchino, enshrining a *miraculous portrait of Our Lady with the Child, deeply venerated by the Venetians, and the most revered object in the whole city. It is said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, and is certainly an ancient Byzantine work, not later in date than the 8th century. It was brought to Venice in the 13th century, and was transported to this altar in 1618, when the former dedication to St. John was altered, and Our Lady made patroness in his stead. During the greater part of the week, this portrait is hidden from the eyes of the faithful behind handsome bronze folding doors, which contain, above, a facsimile of the miraculous image in relief, and below, the figures of St. Mark (patron of the church) and St. John the Evangelist (former patron of the chapel). These doors are opened, however, on Saturdays, when the picture itself, blackened with age, may be seen (not well) from a Iittle distance through an opera-glass. It is half obscured by necklets and other rich ex voids. In character, it seems to be merely an ordinary Greek icon, much deteriorated by age. The chapel itself is also filled with ugly votive offerings, but it possesses some admirable sculptured reliefs, (L. two Saints in niches, R. the Madonna and Child.) I do not describe the various objects in this very holy place at length, however, as it is not practicable to scrutinise any of them without causing just annoyance to the numerous worshippers, for whose sake it is well to remember the church exists. English tourists are often culpably wanting in respect to this holy object.
Between the Chapel of Our Lady and the Vestibule of the Chapel of St. Peter (to the R.) stands an altar of St. Paul, surmounted by a statue of the Apostle, bearing a sword (see plan.) An inscription states that it was erected under ” the famous and pious lord and Doge, Cristoforo Moro” (1462).
Just beyond this altar is the Vestibule of the Chapel of St. Peter, which latter is railed off by a handsome screen, surmounted by five statues, (about 1396)) the work of the first great Venetian sculptors, the brothers Massegne. The figures represent, in the centre, the Madonna and Child ; at the sides, four great women saints connected with VeniceMary Magdalen, Cecilia, Helena, and Margaret. Pass this chapel for the present without entering it beyond the screen.
To your R., as you face this screen, is one of the two magnificent octagonal Pulpits. This one is double, or in two stories. The exquisite marble-work of its staircase should be closely examined. So should all its architectural features. It is one of the finest things in the Basilica.
The South Transept has in its corner arcades at the West End (where it joins the Nave) good early mosaic figures of saints, mostly named ; among them that of *St. Catharine is particularly beautiful. Close by is a fine relief of Our Lady and the Child. Its West Aisle ends in a somewhat Cairene door, leading to the Treasury, (omit for the present above it is a pretty mosaic of angels holding the sign of the Cross. Over the South :Door of the main part of the Transept is a mosaic of St. Mark : this door leads direct into the Doge’s Palace.
The East Aisle of this Transept is divided off (like the Chapel of Our Lady) into a Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, where the consecrated Host is now exhibited : it was formerly dedicated to St. Leonard. (Hence the mosaics above it.) It has also good mosaics on the under side of the arch supporting its gallery.
Between it and the vestibule of the next chapel is the altar of St. James, containing his statue, and answering to that of St. Paul, opposite.
The west compartment (Vestibule of St. Clement) contains the stairs which descend to the Crypt (closed) : on its L. side is the second of the handsome octagonal ambones, or Pulpits. At the base of the steps which go up to this pulpit are two fine *decorative reliefs of peacocks. Near the steps to the Crypt, observe a particularly beautiful relief of Our Lady and the Child ; above her, on the arch, a quaint mosaic of that rather mythical embodiment of bourgeois beneficence, St. Uomobono of Cremona, engaged in the distribution of charity ; he is balanced on the other side by St. Boniface. Many of these minor saints are patrons of neighbouring towns with which Venice had commercial relations.
The screen which rails off the Chapel of St. Clement (pass it by for the present) is like the one which balances it on the N. side ; it also has five excellent statues by the Massegne. The figures represent, in the centre, Our Lady with the Child : at the sides, four other great women saintsChristina, Clara, Catharine, Agnes.
Understand the arrangement of these two Transepts, and of the Central Area of the church between them, before you proceed to the examination of the Eastern Area, with its three apses. This central area, you may note, has mosaics of the whole Gospel historya point which will lead up to the final comprehension of the general arrangement. The series begins on the E. arch, (arch of the Presbytery,) is continued on the N. and then on the S. side, goes on then to the W. arch, with the Passion and Resurrection, and ends in the Central Dome with the Ascension. This first general clue may help you to spell out for yourself the Key to the whole, which I shall give later, illustrated by a diagram. Venice – St. Mark’s – THE PRESBYTERY
You may now go on to inspect the Presbytery, or Main Apse, which is so exceptionally rich in objects of interest that I can only briefly call attention to a very few of them.
The Presbytery is separated from the Central Area by a rood-loft, or screen, of rich oriental columns, supporting an architrave which bears in its centre the Crucifix, (1393,) with the symbols of the four Evangelists at the corners. L. and R. of this crucifix are Our Lady, and St. John the Evangelist, in their conventional places. The other twelve statues are those of St. Mark and of the eleven remaining Apostles. All these are by the Massegne, (1393, named and dated,) and are admirable examples of transitional Venetian sculpture. Form your idea of the beginnings of the Venetian Renaissance by studying these figures, with those of the women saints on the lateral screens.
The arch over the rood-loft has mosaics from designs by Tintoretto, with episodes from the infancy and ministry of the Saviour.
Pass through the screen and enter the first compartment of the Presbytery. The only important objects here are six reliefs in bronze, by Sansovino, representing miracles of St. Mark, let into the parapet of the little boxes or singing galleries to the R. and L.
The Inner Presbytery is locked; the Sacristan will open it for you (a few sous).
In the centre, in the great place of honour, stands the principal object of the whole church, the shrine to which all the rest is merely subservient. This holy of holies is the High Altar, containing within it, (as an inscription at the back testifies,) the actual body of the Evangelist St. Mark, whose miraculous preservation and discovery after the fire we saw depicted in the mosaics of the South Transept.
The High Altar, in accordance with its importance, is covered by a rich canopy or baldacchino, of verd-antique, supported at the angles by four *carved pillars in cipollino, of extraordinarily rich and intricate workmanship. These are splendid specimens of early Italian carving, possibly of the loth century, and certainly not later than the I Ith. The confused groups of figures with which they are entirely covered, however, can only be deciphered, for the most part, by the aid of the inscriptions, so little is there in them of dramatic action. They are intended to narrate in brief the whole history of Our Lady and of the Life and Death of the Saviour : but they do it with the feebleness of the darkest age. The 1st pillar, to the L. at the back, (N.E.,) tells the story of the Blessed Virgin from the rejection of her father Joachim in the Temple to her marriage with Joseph : the scenes are those usual in this set of subjects : the names suffice to identify them. The and pillar, on the L. in front, (N.W.,) has the life of Our Lord from the Annunciation to the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The 3rd pillar, diagonally opposite to the last, at the R. behind, (S.E.,) has the same history from the episode of the young man who wishes to bury his father to the cure of the leper. The 4th pillar, to the R. in front, (S.W.,) continues the story of the Passion to the Ascension and Christ in glory. (Fully to describe the subjects, over 100 in number, thus represented, is beyond my space : nor do I recommend any, save advanced students with abundant time, to tackle them. They are hard to make out, but well deserve the attention of those who already know the art of the period from ivories, etc.) On the summit of the canopy are two figures of Our Saviour, front and back ; at the corners, the four Evangelists. A wonderful work, all told, of immense interest.
The raised back of the altar is formed by the famous and exquisite **Pala d’Oro, or golden altar-piece. This, the most magnificent existing example of the early mediaeval jewellers’ craft, is covered by a curtain on ordinary occasions, and is only publicly exposed for a few days at Easter. It may, however, be viewed, (though not satisfactorily,) from 12 to 2 daily, for a payment of 25 c. per person. (Enquire of the Sacristan.)
A full description of this magnificent early work, and of the subjects represented on it, would extend to twenty or thirty pages; I must therefore content myself here with the briefest indications of the general treatment.
The upper part (or first broad band) of the Pala d’Oro is the oldest. It was ordered from Constantinople in 976, (after the fire which destroyed the first church,) by Doge Pietro Orseolo; its whole workmanship is entirely Byzantine, its inscriptions are in Greek, and it bears little reference to Venice or Venetian ideas. It is a monument of oriental Christian iconography.
The central plaque of this upper band consists of a figure of the Archangel Michael (very much venerated in the Greek church) between a pair of six-winged seraphs, his name being marked in Greek letters. The three plaques on either side consist of scenes from the Gospel History and its sequel. Beginning on the L., these are, the Entry into Jerusalem ; the Resurrection, (so inscribed in Greek, but in reality Christ releasing Adam and Eve from Hades;) and the Crucifixion : this last plaque must originally have pre-ceded the previous one, and the two must have been transposed in subsequent alterations made by ignorant western workmen. R. of the central figure come the Ascension, with the Madonna, angels, and apostles below, Christ rising above ; the Descent of the Holy Ghost ; and the Death of the Virgin, whose soul, like a little child, Christ receives. These plaques are all richly covered with jewels, and have several small medallions of saints, mostly oriental, and bearing little or no relation to Venice.
The lower Part of the Pala d’Oro consists to a large extent of separate gold altar-pieces, some of which were ordered by Doge Ordelafo Falier in 1105, while others were probably looted from Constantinople after the capture of the city by Doge Enrico Dandolo in 1204. These plaques have been several times altered and remade by Venetian gold-smiths, as the inscriptions testify, so that part of the work here is Byzantine and part native. This composite lower portion was joined to the upper, in all probability, about 1345. It consists, as a whole, of a central design, (whose main compartment contains a Byzantine figure of Christ blessing, with medallions of the four Evangelists,) and of minor episodes. Under this central design are two Latin verse inscriptions, giving part of the history of the Pala. Between these inscriptions stands a graceful Byzantine figure of Our Lady, with her Greek monogram. The crowned figures to the R. and L. of this Madonna are peculiarly interesting. That to the L. has a Latin inscription to the effect that it represents Ordelafo Falier, by the grace of God Duke of the Venetians : that to the R. has a Greek inscription stating that it represents Irene, most pious Empress. As a matter of fact, however, the Doge’s face is a later substitution for that of the Emperor John Comnenus, husband of this very Empress Irene. The original altar-piece at Constantinople from which this portion has been stolen must therefore have been presented by the Emperor and Empress to St. Sophia : the Venetians must afterwards have altered the figure and inscription to suit their own dead Doge, but most ungallantly left him faced, not by his own Dogaressa, but by the Byzantine Empress.
The other designs on this portion of the Pala consist mostly of figures of saints, etc., the upper row comprising adoring angels, the second row the twelve apostles, and the third row prophets, named for the most part in Latin letters.
Many minor subjects are comprised in the Pala, but these are as many as the casual visitor is likely to examine. The most interesting of the minor subjects is a set detailing the life and miracles of St. Mark, and the transference of his holy body to Venice. This set is clearly of native workmanship, and bears none but Latin inscriptions : it resembles in part the mosaics in the church. The whole Pala, above and below, bristles with jewels of every description.
The front of the altar, also affixed on state occasions only, is of silver gilt.
This altar of St. Mark, containing the actual body of the Evangelist, must be regarded as the focus of the entire building, towards which all the rest converges. It was in mediaeval times the most cherished possession of Venice. To its L. is now the Patriarchal Throne; on either side are the stalls of the Canons, brought here from the dissolved Carthusian monastery, when St. Mark’s was erected into a cathedral in 1807.
Behind the high altar stands a second altar (of the Holy Cross) supported by six beautiful columns, two of them of verd-antique, two of African marble, and two of alabaster, semi-transparent ; these last, spirally twisted, are said to have come from Solomon’s Temple.
Having thus examined cursorily the chief objects on the floor of the presbytery, you may proceed to notice the mosaics of its upper portion.
The great Eastern Dome has in its centre an exquisite early mosaic figure of the beardless Christ, holding what seems to be a roll of prophecy. Beneath Him is a figure of Our Lady, to the extreme E.; next to whom are her royal and prophetic ancestors, kings David and Solomon. The other figures are those of the prophets who prophesied of Christ,namely, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Abdias, Habakkuk, Hosea, Jonah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, each holding a scroll inscribed with words of their prophecies. (These wordsread them if you know Latinare always of great importance in understanding the special meaning of the figures.) In the pendentives are the symbols (six-winged) of the four Evangelists, who showed forth Christ’s works to Christendom.
The small arches on either side of these pendentives have exquisite decorative work, with the mystic Lamb and other minor figures.
The apse is occupied by a late but very fine seated figure of Christ, dated 1505. This is the terminal object of the whole church ; it is seen in front of you from the main portal at the moment of entering.
Beneath this mosaic, between Me windows, are four figures more directly connected with the dedication of the church and with the holy Body which lies within it. To the L. is St. Nicholas, commercial patron of Venice ; next to him is St. Peter, who hands St. Mark the Gospel, to which he has given his approbation ;; third comes St. Mark himself, who receives the book of his Gospel from St. Peter and hands it on to Hermagoras, Bishop of Aquileia ; fourth is Hermagoras in the act of receiving it. The last three of these mosaics, thus prominently placed under the apsidal figure of Our Saviour, represent the importance of St. Mark both as Evangelist and as first preacher of the Gospel in these estuaries. They may be regarded as symbolical of the consecration of Mark by Peter, and of Hermagoras by Mark, and thus of the direct descent of the Venetian Patriarchate from the first Bishop of Aquileia, from the holy Evangelist, and from the Prince of the Apostles. The puzzling presence of St. Nicholas in this group is explained by the Latin verses above, which state that the bodies of these four saints rest in Venetian soil, and that on them the Venetian people chiefly trust for welfare and protection. These verses are of such fundamental importance in the scheme of the church, that, contrary to my usual custom, I transcribe them in full, in the original rhyming Latin :
Quatuor hos jure fuit hic præponere cure, (curæ,) Corporibus quorum præcellit honos Venetorum. His viget, his crescit, terraque marique intescit : Integer et totus sit ab his numquamque relictus.
The last line does not rhyme, and has obviously been ill restored : “remotus” in the last word has been suggested as the original reading ; but I think the old verse was really “Integer et tutus sit ab his, nunquamque solutus.” The order of the figures is comprehensible if we notice that the central pair are Peter and Mark, the outer pair Nicholas and Hermagoras.
Only from this Presbytery, and from the two Apsidal Chapels we have next to visit, can the ordinary traveller obtain a sight of the *early mosaics in the two great Arches above the Apsidal Chapels, R. and L. of the sarcophagus of St. Mark. (The organ-gallery above, from which these most interesting works are best seen, is unfortunately closed to the public, except by special permission, accorded to all whose claim is properly presented to the courteous officials.) I will therefore describe their subjects here, leaving the reader to find out for himself the best points of view which the light and the conditions of the moment render possible. In any case, they are hard to decipher.
The great arch to the L. of the High Altar (N. wall of Presbytery) stands over the Chapel of St. Peter, the spiritual father of St. Mark, and therefore represents the life and martyrdom of that saint, and of his spiritual son, the Evangelist. L. side (W.) above, St. Peter ordains St. Mark as bishop ; St. Mark heals a leper ; St. Mark baptises converts : below, Rome (as shown by the inscription in the arcade) : St. Peter ordains St. Hermagoras as first bishop of Aquileia: St. Mark takes his Gospel to Alexandria, (so marked in the arcade St. Hermagoras baptises the people of Aquileia : these mosaics thus directly connect Mark and Peter with Venetian Christianity. R. side (E.) beginning below, St. Mark, warned by an angel, goes to Alexandria : he heals the cobbler Anianus : above, he preaches the Gospel ; he baptises.
The wall beneath this arch continues the history, though not, it seems to me, in chronological order : Herod orders the imprisonment of St. Peter : the angel delivers him from prison. The martyrdom of St. Mark : his disciples bury his body.
The great arch to the R. of the High Altar, (S. wall of Presbytery,) stands over the chapel of St. Clement, and has perhaps the earliest, and certainly the most interesting “mosaics in the whole Basilica. These represent the history of the body of St. Mark after his death, and its direct connection with the City of Venice. To the L., above, is seen a single arch with the word “Alexandria ” ; R. of this the priest Theodore and the monk Stauracius, Alexandrian Christians, are seen confiding the body of St. Mark to the care of Tribunus and Rusticus, Venetian traders then at Alexandria ; still further R., Tribunus and Rusticus, (all the figures being fully named,) carry the body of the saint in a basket for embarkation ; the inscription above naïvely confesses that this is an act of theftit runs : Marcum furantur : Kanzir hi vociferantur, “They steal the body of Mark ; they cry as they come, Kanzir,” i.e., pork. Below, they hide the body in the sails of the ship, while Theodore and Stauracius stand by in order to deceive the Mohammedan Custom-house officials. On the wall between the two halves of the arch, the departure of the bark from Alexandria : its arrival at Venice. On the R. side of the arch (again) is seen above, the miracle of the storm, in which the ship is nearly driven on the islands of the lagoon, marked by naine, estuarie; St. Mark appears and warns the sailors of their danger in another quaint rhyming hexameter. Beneath this, the Venetian people, represented by the Doge, the senate, the priests, and the laity, joyfully receive the holy body. These mosaics are in the same simple and direct style as those telling the same story which once existed on the façade of the church, and which can still be seen in Bellini’s interesting picture in the Academy. They are among the most precious relics of early art in Venice. I cannot, however, reduce the series to any quite intelligible order.
Visit the Presbytery often, till you feel that you have examined its contents thoroughly. There are many other objects worth note in it, which the necessary limits of a Guide Book compel me to pass over.
The Apsidal Chapel to the L. (N.) is that of St. Peter, whose connection with St. Mark I have already sufficiently pointed out. It is very dark, except on the brightest days, and has on its altar (which contains relics of St. Peter) and on its apse, figures of its patron, the Prince of the Apostles. It is, however, one of the best positions for seeing portions of the mosaics, already mentioned, on the wall and arch above, (which bear reference to the life of St. Peter, and to the life and martyrdom of his follower, St. Mark,) especially those of the history of Peter just overhead.
[A door of exit in this Chapel gives access to a portion of the exterior not elsewhere seen, with curious fragments of ancient sculpture embedded in the wall. You can proceed hence to San Zaccaria and the Riva degli Schiavoni.]
The Apsidal Chapel to the R. (S.) is that of St. Clement. It contains in its apse a mosaic figure of the saint to whom it is dedicated. Its altar has a relief of the Madonna and Child, between St. Peter and St. Clement : beneath this, St. Nicholas, to whom St. Andrew presents his namesake, Doge Andrea Gritti (the donor) balanced by St. James (whose altar is just outside). An inscription states that the altar contains relics, not only of St. Clement, but also of Blaise, Stephen, Hermagoras, Fortunatus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Pancras, Hippolytus, Denis, Cyril, Sergius, and Bacchus, some of whose figures you may find among the surrounding mosaics. This is a good station for observing portions of mosaics (already described) on the arch above, representing the transference of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria to Venice. The wall has episodes from the life of St. Clement, (Sisinnius struck blind because he tries to see Mass, being a Pagan, etc.)
A door on the R. in this Chapel (closed) gives direct access to the court of the Doge’s Palace, and was the portal by which the Most Serene Prince usually entered the Basilica. Close to it, therefore, is an inscription in Latin verse, giving plain and by no means courtier-like advice to the Doge by name as to his spiritual and temporal duties.
If the reader finds that these notes do not call attention to certain objects that interest him in the church, or do not solve certain problems that puzzle him he must remember that a full description of all the works of art in St. Mark’s on the same scale would far outrun the entire limits of this little book. Those who desire fuller information must turn to the works of Pasini and Saccardo already mentioned. My own object has been merely to give my readers in a short compass some general conception of this glorious church, which they may afterwards study for themselves in detail.