Venice – St. Mark’s – The Baptistery

Which is entered by a door in the Right Aisle, not far from the St. Clement entrance. You pay on leaving (see below). At least one whole morning—a sunny one if possible—should be devoted to examining this chapel and the Cappella Zen. Remember that they contain far more objects of artistic interest than most northern cathedrals.

The Baptistery, with the adjoining chapel, formed origin-ally a portion of the Atrium, but was shut off from it apparently about the 13th century. In the middle of the 14th century, the great Doge Andrea Dandolo, (elected in 1342,) gave a commission to have the whole of the Baptistery decorated throughout with mosaics. These works thus form a transitional link between the early Byzantine type and the latter Renaissance handicraft which we shall observe hereafter, and some specimens of which we have already seen in the exterior. In examining the Baptistery, therefore, bear these two facts in mind : (1st) that lts purpose is that of administering baptism, on which account it is naturally dedicated to the institutor of the rite, St. John the Baptist, while almost all its decorations bear direct reference to his life or to the sacrament of baptism (2nd) that it is a monument of Doge Andrea Dandolo, whose tomb it contains, the great prince choosing to be buried in the midst of this noble memorial of his own munificence.

The Baptistery consists of three portions: (1) that with the font, by which you enter; (2) that to the left, with the altar; both these have cupolas; (3) a little vaulted room to the R., near the entrance to the Cappella Zen.

Begin with the second of these, and examine, first, the *mosaic in the lunette above the altar. It represents the Crucifixion, with the usual accompanying figures of Our Lady and St. John the Evangelist, named above. Water and blood (the former unusual) gush from the Redeemer’s wounds—the water (John xix. 34) clearly symbolising baptism. Beyond Our Lady, to the L., stands St. Mark, patron of the Church, with his open Gospel ; beyond St. John the Evangelist, to the R., St. John the Baptist, patron of the chapel. At the foot of the cross, close to the usual skull of Adam,. kneels Doge Andrea Dandolo himself, the donor, in his ducal cap and robe. On either side kneel his Grand Chamberlain and a senator. The whole thus tells the story of this Baptistery, in this church of St. Mark, decorated by this Doge, aided by his subordinates.

Neglecting for the moment the cupola and other decorations, look next at the mosaic in the lunette to your R. as you face the altar. It begins a series of scenes from the life of the Baptist, continued round the three rooms at the same level. Its subjects are, from L. to R.: the angel appears to Zacharias ; Zacharias is struck dumb ; he goes forth from the Temple to the people; he meets his wife, Elizabeth.

The story continues in the lunette of the next compartment, pierced by a window : birth of St. John the Baptist, a poor 16th-century work substituted for the fine original.

Seat yourself on the red marble seat to the R., facing south, between the compartment with the font and the vaulted room, to examine the next two mosaics on the wall which gives access to the Cappella Zen. L. of the central arch, an angel leads the infant John into the wilderness. In the lunette, an angel brings him a garment at the approach of his ministry. R. of the arch, the preaching of St. John the Baptist.

Now, sit on the seat near the pierced door leading into the Piazzetta. On the wall opposite, the Baptism of Christ in Jordan : three angels on the bank, as usual in the conventional representation of this scene, hold the Saviour’s garments. To the R. of this, on the wall leading into the font room, John saying, ” I indeed baptise with water,” etc.

Over the main entrance to the Baptistery, opposite the font, the daughter of Herodias dances before Herod ; on the R. her mother bids her to ask for the head of St. John the Baptist in a charger, which is symbolised by a pointing hand and by the princess already, prophetically as it were, bearing the head on her own as she dances. This is a piece of extreme symbolism ; study well this beautiful composition, admirable for its balance, for the vivid pose of the dancing princess, for the magnificent robes of the king, queen, and courtier, and for the delicious dishes and decorations of the table. On the R. a page brings in a dish of fruit.

The last compartment of the history is in the lunette to the L. of the altar, and contains three subjects : (1) the beheading or decollation of St. John the Baptist, with a fine figure of the executioner sheathing his sword ; centre, the princess brings the head to the enthroned *Herodias, who sits like a Byzantine empress, a type of worldly pomp and power com-. bined with wickedness ; to the R., the disciples, in Greek ecclesiastical costumes, place the body of the saint in the tomb.

Beneath this mosaic is a carved stone head of St. John the Baptist, and also, lower down, let into the wall, the slab on which he was beheaded, still stained red with the blood of his martyrdom.

Now, examine in further detail the other decorations of the compartment containing the font.

The cupola has in its centre a figure of Christ holding a scroll with the command, ” Go into all the world and preach, baptising,” etc. Beneath are figures of St. Mark and the Apostles obeying this command ; each Apostle is represented laying his hands on a naked convert in the font, while a sponsor stands by to the R. The inscriptions mention the places in which each baptised in the following order, be-ginning with St. Mark, (who is over the doorway leading into the Baptistery, and is in dark-blue robes :) St. Mark baptises in Alexandria ; St. John the Evangelist in Ephesus; James Minor in Judea ; Philip in Phrygia ; Matthew in Ethiopia ; Simon in Egypt ; James in India ; Andrew in “Chaja” (Achaia) ; Peter in Rome ; Bartholomew in India ; Thaddeus in Mesopotamia ; Matthias, in Palestine. In the pendentives of this cupola are the *four Greek Fathers of the Church, very noble figures, Saints Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil, (the last restored, but excellent,) habited in picturesque Greek canonicals, and each holding a scroll inscribed with a Latin sentence, sup-posed to be translated from his writings, relating to baptismal regeneration.

The cupola in the altar compartment is very dark, but nevertheless deserves careful study. Sit till your eyes are able to see it. It contains in its centre, Christ in Glory, ascending, surrounded by a circle of angels. Beneath, just over the altar, is the figure of an *eight-winged seraph bearing the inscription, Plenitudo scientie, ” Fulness of Wisdom.” The other *symbolical figures from this point, reading to the R., are as follows : Thrones, Dominations, Angels, Virtues (with Death conquered), Powers (with the devil chained), Principalities, and Seraphim. The whole represents Heaven, which is entered by the gate of the sacrament of Baptism. In the pendentives are the four Latin Fathers, Gregory, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, with angels dictating to them. The Latin type of these saints should be contrasted with the Greek type of the Greek Fathers in the corresponding part of the central cupola.

Behind the altar is an appropriate relief of the Baptism of Christ, with many accessories (Annunciation, Daniel, Zacharias, St. Mark, St. Nicholas, etc.) ; R. and L. of it, reliefs of St. George and St. Theodore, both mounted and slaying their respective dragons ; these two connect the chapel with the minor patrons of Venice. The altar itself consists of a huge block of rough granite, from which Christ preached to the Tyrians. It was brought from Tyre by Doge Domenico Michiel in 1126.

On the under side of the arch between the altar compartment and the font compartment are two old mosaics of the blessed Pietro Orseolo, Doge of Venice, and St. Isidore (whose connection with Doge Andrea Dandolo will be clearer later). Below are a vile modern mosaic of the Blessed Anthony of Brescia, a disgrace to this noble chapel, as well as a feeble theatrical 17th-century figure of St. Theodore.

In the place of honour, beneath the central cupola, (with Christ sending forth the Apostles to baptise,) stands the ancient font, supplied in the 16th century (1545) with a good Renaissance bronze cover ; the bronze statue of St. John the Baptist in its centre is by Francesco Segala, after a design by Sansovino ; the bronze reliefs, with the four Evangelists, and scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, are by Tiziano Minio of Padua, and Desiderio of Florence. This font, of course, forms the raison d’être of the whole chapel.

Opposite the main entrance door is the monument of Doge Andrea Dandolo, the donor, a splendid specimen of 14th-century sculpture. Above, the *recumbent figure of the Doge, (d. 13540 serenely beautiful, under a graceful canopy ; beneath, on the sarcophagus, the Madonna and Child, and an Annunciation in two niches : between them, two reliefs representing St. John the Evangelist in the cauldron of boiling oil, and the martyrdom of the Doge’s personal patron, St. Andrew. The angels drawing curtains, as usual in tombs of the Pisan school, should also be noted. Andrea Dandolo was the last Doge buried in St. Mark’s : after his time, the Serene Princes were buried at San Giovanni e Paolo, or at the Frari.

The greater part of the small vaulted chamber between the font and the Cappella Zen has no direct reference to the subject of baptism. It is treated as a vestibule, and there-fore appropriately gives the life of Christ before his baptism. The under side of the arch which leads to it has mosaics of the four Evangelists. On the vaulted roof in the centre, is a colossal head of Christ, represented as aged, after the later Byzantine fashion, and surrounded by prophets bearing rolls of prophecy. Beneath are Episodes of the Infancy ; on the side towards the Cappella Zen, L., the Three Magi, represented as Three Kings, (old, middle-aged, and young,) come to Bethlehem to enquire of Herod ; R., the Three Kings adore the Child, with Joseph warned by an angel to fly into Egypt : both much restored and almost modern. (You will find these two scenes represented very similarly elsewhere. Note and compare all such subjects.) On the side towards the font, L., the Flight into Egypt, the latter symbolically represented by a city ; and R., the Massacre of the Innocents : in the lunettes at either end, two prophets. Near the door, R., is the tomb of Doge Giovanni Soranzo (1328) bearing his arms.