Venice – St. Mark’s – The Exterior.

Begin your detailed examination of the exterior with the or Main Façade. The best time to examine this façade is towards sunset on a bright afternoon, when it glistens in the full rays of the sun, All the detail is then better seen. If you cannot obtain such an afternoon for your first examination, go over the whole again whenever such occurs.

Start first with the lower portion, or false façade formed by the Atrium.

Set out by taking a seat at the base of the northernmost Flag-Staff, the one close to the gilded Clock-Tower with the big clock. Here you will observe that the lower stage consists of five large arches, flanked by two much smaller and irregular ones. The central arch is higher than the others, so that it impinges upon the terrace below the four Bronze Horses. Its lunette is filled by a late and intensely feeble mosaic of the Last Judgment (1836). The remaining lunettes contain the history of the removal of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria to Venice. Though (with one glorious exception) late, and artistically of little interest, these mosaics, unhappily substituted for the fine early ones, should be examined in detail as embodying the legend of the foundation of this church.

The series begins to the right. 1st Arch (R.) on the under-side of the arch itself, the body of St. Mark removed from his church in Alexandria ; (L.) it is placed in a basket and covered with leaves ; (centre lunette) the authorities examine it, but being told that it is pork, withdraw in aversion : all of 166o. and Arch (R.) under-side, the arrival of the body at Venice on the Venetian ship ; (centre lunette) it is received at the quay with religious processions ; (L.) the body, on a bier, is carried ashore at Venice : all of 1660. 3rd Arch, beyond the great doorway Reception of the body in state by the Doge and Senators ; a finely-coloured work of the 18th century, designed by Rizzi, but inappropriate for its place. 4th Arch,** a magnificent early 13th-century mosaic, representing the Church of St. Mark into which the body is brought. Examine it closely to show the state of the church at that date. The central lunette above the great doorway, you can see, was then worthily occupied by a colossal Byzantine figure of Christ. Beneath this figure, two ecclesiastics bear the sacred body on a bier into the church ; around stand princes and people, symbolising perhaps the various kings, queens, and distinguished persons who have visited the shrine since the reception of the Evangelist’s body at Venice. All the mosaics of the façade were once of this type : the 16th century, in its pride of accurate drawing and perspective, replaced them by the present insipid substitutes. You can see copies of the originals in the great Bellini picture at the Academy.

Now, sit again at the base of the Flag-Staff as before, and with an opera-glass compare the 13th-century church (in the mosaic) with the existing edifice, looking from one to the other. This will enable you to see how much of it is primitive Byzantine-Romanesque, and how much is Gothic addition. There were then no pinnacles or gables. Observe that the four Bronze Horses were already in their place, which fixes the date of this mosaic as shortly after 1204.

Next take a seat at the base of the central Flag-Staff, and observe six reliefs, let into the walls of the lower façade, between the arches. The two to L. and R. of the main door-way, respectively, represent the two warrior saints and protectors of Venice, George and Theodore, seated on cross-legged stools or thrones : early 13th-century sculpture. The two next represent (L.) the Madonna, with her arms expanded in the Byzantine fashion, and her Greek mono-gram, ” Mother of God” ; (R.) the angel Gabriel bearing a wand or narthex. These two form between them an Annunciation, separated, as is often the case, by wide spaces : 12th to 13th century sculpture. The two last, at either end, are antique or semi-antique, and represent two of the Labours of Hercules ; they are probably not later than the 6th century.

Taking the lower façade in further detail, you observe, to the extreme L. a small portico, with a stilted arch, containing a beautiful decorative design of birds facing one another. (See Goblet D’Alviella’s Migration of Symbols.) It is sup-ported below by one lily-capitalled column, the columns above being more numerous, as is usual at St. Mark’s and in Byzantine architecture generally, thus giving a tree-like effect of trunk and branches. The upper columns of this portico are of porphyry. Between the two to the R. is a water-bearer. Proceeding S., towards the Piazzetta, notice in the 1st doorway you reach, beneath the 13th-century mosaic of the church, a beautiful arch with an Archangel on horse-back (Rev. xix. 11 ? ). Below it are the symbols of the four Evangelists, in the following order: Luke, bull ; Mark, lion ; John, eagle ; Matthew, angel. This order is common in Venice. Beneath the exquisite lattice-work is a lintel, with scenes from the Life of Christ, very obscure, the most decipherable being the Adoration of the Magi, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the miracle at Cana : at either end, a deacon with a censer. Observe in detail the extraordinary variety of the columns and their capitals in this doorway. The 2nd doorway is square in general outline, with similarly decorated columns, and a centre resembling jewel -work. The 3rd doorway contains the main portal, flanked on either side by a singularly beautiful group of columns. In the lunette immediately above the square door is a relief of an angel and a sleeping Evangelist. It probably represents the legend that as St. Mark was passing the lagoon, on his way from Aquileia to Alexandria, an angel notified to him in a dream that his Basilica would be erected on this spot. (The legend here described will be more fully illustrated hereafter in the Cappella Zen.) The 1st archivolt above this figure is decorated with grotesques of the 13th century, apparently meaningless. The 2nd archivolt has on its under surface the twelve months, (with zodiacal signs,) thus represented, from L. to R.: January, carrying home a tree ; February, warming his feet, with the fishes ; March, a warrior (Martius) with the ram ; April, carrying a sheep, with the bull ; May, seated, and crowned with flowers by two maidens, with the heads of the twins ; June, reaping, with the crab : in the keystone, Christ enthroned in the firmament as ruling the seasons : then, July, mowing ; August, taking a siesta, with the virgin ; September, the vintage, with the scales ; October, digging ; November, catching birds ; December, killing pigs. On the outside are 8 Beatitudes, Religion, and 7 Virtues (3 theological, and 4 cardinal). The main or 3rd archivolt, surrounding the mosaic of the Resurrection, has on its under surface the handicrafts of Venice, reading thus from R. to L.: the Fishermen, the Smith, the Sawyer, the Woodcutter, the Cooper or Cask-maker, the Barber-Surgeon, the Weaver ; in the keystone, Christ the Lamb ; the Mason, the Potter, the Butcher, the Baker, the Vintner, the Shipwright ; and last of all, in a different style, a doubtful figure with crutches, which may represent old age, or, lest any class he left out, the cripples and the helpless. The outer surface of this archivolt contains eight Prophets with scrolls, among exquisite foliage of acanthus and ball pattern. The next or 4th doorway resembles the 2nd, but has a fine bronze gate with heads in relief. The last or 5th doorway has decorative work, and very beautiful capitals to some of its columns. I defer consideration of the little portico on the extreme R., till after we have examined the northern façade.

Now step back into the Piazza and look at the upper or true façade, above the Gallery of the Four Horses. Its central arch is filled by one great window. The other 4 arches contain four late, weak, and uninteresting mosaics (17th century) from the History of Christ after the Crucifixion. Unlike the series of the Translation of St. Mark, they read from L. to R. 1st lunette, the Descent from the Cross ; 2nd lunette, Christ in Hades delivering Adam and Eve and the Patriarchs ; 3rd lunette, the Resurrection ; 4th lunette, the Ascension. All these mosaics, with those of the lower lunettes beneath them, replace two sets of four finer early compositions, of which one only (that of the Byzantine church) now remains to us. Observe the decorative superiority of this last, and its suitability to the architecture it adorns. Between these lunettes are functionally useful figures of water-carriers with rain-spouts, probably symbolising the Four Rivers of Paradise.

So far the main fabric of the façade represents the original Byzantine-Romanesque building, (except in so far as the mosaics have been altered,) and corresponds with the picture of the church given in the 13th century mosaic. The turreted pinnacles and false gables above are later Gothic additions of the 15th century. The false gables stand over the centre of the main arches, and are mere thin screens of decoration, with no roof behind them. Examine them all in order.

On the topmost gable of all, in the very centre, stands St. Mark himself, bearing his Gospel, in the place of honour as patron saint of this church. Below him, on either side, are three angels, with gilt metal wings, in veneration, among rampant foliage. The uppermost pair swing censers. The 2nd pair hold holy-water vessels and sprinklers. The 3rd pair have their arms folded in adoration of the Evangelist. Beneath them, on a blue firmament set with golden stars, is the gilt emblem of the Evangelist, the winged lion, holding a book inscribed with the Venetian motto, Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meus, words spoken to him from heaven at this spot on his way from Aquileia. The four other gables, above the centres of the arches, have statues of four great warrior saints of Christendom, emblematic of the position of Venice as champion of the faith against the Infidel in the east—a point of great importance at the period when these Gothic additions were made to the primitive building. The two nearest St. Mark are (L.) St. George, with the red-cross shield, and the dragon, above the mosaic of Christ in Hades ; and (R.) St. Theodore with his dragon, above the Resurrection. These are the two subsidiary patrons of the Republic. To the extreme left, above the Deposition, stands (I think St. Proculus, holding a banner ; to the extreme right, St. Demetrius. (Perhaps St. Demetrius, L., and St. Procopius or St. Mercurius, R.) All are armed with gilt-tipped spears. Beneath each figure half-lengths of four Prophets, holding rolls of their prophecies, emerge among rampant and rather flamboyant foliage.

The intervals between the gables are filled up by six little turrets, or canopied pinnacles. Of these the one to the extreme left contains the Archangel Gabriel kneeling ; the one to the extreme right, the Blessed Virgin, praying at a prie-dieu. These two form together an Annunciation. The four central turrets contain statues of the Evangelists with their symbols, in the following order from L. to R. : Matthew, angel ; Mark, lion ; John, eagle ; Luke, bull. Our Lady’s pinnacle alone is distinguished by spiral shafts to its columns.


Now, proceed round the corner furthest from the lagoon, into the little Piazzetta dei Leon, so called from the two squat and stumpy red marble lions which guard its entrance : they were placed here by Doge Alvise Mocenigo in the 18th century.

As before, examine first the lower or false façade, beginning at the further end of the little Piazza, near the Patriarchal [Archiepiscopal] Palace.

The first great arch has, to its R. and L., reliefs of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (Raphael comes later). Beneath it stands the monument of Daniele Manin, Dictator of the abortive Republic of 1848.

Round the first corner is a colossal figure of St. Christopher, bearing the infant Christ. Observe the beautiful decorative work throughout this portion of the building. Here and elsewhere the marble slabs should be closely noted. The little façade to the left of the open door into the church has, on the lowest tier, a relief of St. Leonard (from his altar within) ; above it, Our Lady, in the Greek fashion, with adoring angels ; higher still a decorative relief of animals with foliage ; and then, the Evangelists St. John and St. Matthew, on either side of a figure of Christ with his Greek monogram.

The main north façade, which commences beyond this angle, contains, first, a Gothic doorway, known as the Porta dei Fiori, somewhat Cairene (or Alexandrian) in type. In its lunette is an early relief of Our Lady and St. Joseph with the Divine Child, represented as of superhuman size, with the ox and ass and adoring angels. Above it, in the arch, St. John the Evangelist ; on either side, St. Luke and St. Mark. The next arch has only decorative work ; note the capitals of the columns, and their superposition in the order of three to two. Between this arch and the next is an ancient relief of Abraham’s Sacrifice ; to the L., Abraham and Isaac on their way. to the mount ; to the R. Abraham ready to slay Isaac, but prevented by the Lord, as a hand emerging from a cloud ; in the centre, the ram caught by its horns. The corresponding place between the next arches is occupied by what I take to be a Pagan relief of oriental origin, explained by the Venetian archmologists as Cybele drawn by lions, but more probably of remote eastern origin, possibly Buddhist. (A learned friend says; Alexander lifted by griffons to examine the heavens. If so, coloured by Buddhism.) The arch beyond it has an early symbolical Greek relief of the I2 Apostles as 12 sheep, flanked by palm trees. In the centre the Lamb and the cross enthroned. (This is the mystic subject known as “The Preparation of the Throne” for the Last Judgment.) The Greek inscriptions are, “The Holy Apostles,” ” The Lamb.” The last relief is that of the Archangel Raphael, concluding the series of Archangels begun at the opposite end of the façade.

The upper or true façade has mostly decorative work in coloured marble in its arches. The Gothic additions consist of false crocketed gables with figures of Faith (cross and cup), Hope (clasped hands), Charity (bearing a child), Temperance (with cup and flagon), and Prudence : the Theological Virtues and two Cardinal, not in this order : the other two Cardinal are on the south front. The figures under the canopied pinnacles are St. Michael the Arch-angel and the four Latin Doctors, St. Gregory, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, as interpreters of the four Evangelists. (Jerome bears a church to the extreme L. I cannot myself discriminate any symbols of the others.)


The little portico forming part of the West and South Fronts is one of the most beautiful elements of the edifice, architecturally speaking. All its columns and capitals should be carefully examined. There is a reason for its special decoration. It is the most noticeable portion of the building, turned towards the Piazza, the sea, and the Doge’s Palace, and on it the greatest pains have accordingly been lavished. The shafts and capitals of its columns are exquisitely beautiful. The short red pillar, without, near its outer angle, is the Sacred Stone of Venice, the Pietra del Bando, from which the laws of the Republic were proclaimed.

The first arch of the lower façade as we proceed towards the Doge’s Palace, contains two griffons, with a calf and a child respectively in their paws. (The ugly Renaissance pediment between them, forming the back of an altar within, harmonises ill with the architecture about.) A little beyond, and further out into the Piazza, stand two square Greek pillars, brought from the church of St. Saba at Ptolemais (St. John of Acre) in 1256 by Lorenzo Tiepolo as a trophy of his victory over the Genoese. They are covered with fine decorative work and Greek monograms. The Latin crosses below were cut on them at Venice.

The upper or true façade in this portion is the richest in ornament of the entire building. Its two great arches are filled with elaborate pierced screen-work. In the minor central arch is a famous and specially revered mosaic of the Madonna, before which two lamps are nightly lit. Beneath the base of the two canopies are mosaics of St. Christopher with a child, and St. Nicholas of Myra. The Gothic additions have, on the gables, Justice, with the sword and scales, and Fortitude, tearing open the lion’s mouth. These conclude the series of Virtues (three Theo-logical and four Cardinal) begun on the North Façade.

Under the canopied pinnacles are the two first anchorites (R) St. Anthony and (L) St. Paul the Hermit. Study the whole of this façade in detail carefully.

The projecting angle towards the Doge’s Palace also forms a portion of St. Mark’s, being the outer wall of the Treasury. Its time-stained marble coating retains more of the antique aspect, unspoiled by restoration, than the remainder of the building. At the angle is a curious porphyry relief of four figures embracing one another in pairs, about which many idle tales are told, but of whose origin and meaning nothing definite is known. They are Greek in workmanship, and probably came from Ptolemais. Into the chief portion of the wall between them and the main doorway of the Doge’s Palace (the Porta della Carta), several decorative reliefs have been let into the wall. Especially beautiful are two to the R., with decorative trees between *griffons and *peacocks, as well as one to the L. divided crosswise into four panels.

The rest of the exterior of St. Mark’s is for the most part hidden by the Doge’s Palace and other buildings.