Venice – St. Mark’s – The Interior

The examination of the interior is best made by beginning with the


the mosaics of which are amongst the earliest and finest in the building.

Enter by the Main Central Door of the West Front or Principal Façade. Its outer gate is of bronze, with lions’ heads. Facing you as you enter it is the Inner Doorway, in whose lunette is a fine Renaissance mosaic figure of St. Mark, of 1545, after a cartoon by Titian. Beneath this, in exquisite Byzantine niches, are *mosaics of Our Lady and six Apostles as follows : Andrew, Thomas, Peter, Paul, James, Simon ; and, without niches, Philip and Bartholomew, less ancient. Under them, on either side of the door, come the four Evangelists, named, and with a rhyming leonine Latin inscription.

Now, proceed to the R. to the first (or furthest) cupola, next to the Cappella Zen. The splendid series of mosaics which form the main subject of the Atrium, begins here. They contain the Old Testament history, down to the time of Moses, treated with charming and childish naïveté. The earliest date from 1210, but those of the further (or N.) portion are somewhat later in type.

Seating yourself on the low red seat between the two doors which give towards the Piazza, look up at the cupola. It contains the history of the Creation. Figures in white, varying in number, symbolise the days. [1st tier, top or centre :] 1. The Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters. 2. The Lord creates light and darkness, with the First Day. 3. The Lord makes a firmament, with Second Day. 4. The Lord divides the waters above from the waters below. 5. The Lord makes dry land and plants, with Third Day. [2nd tier.] 1. The Lord makes lights in the firmament of heaven, symbolised by a starry globe bearing the sun and moon. 2. The Lord makes birds and fishes. 3. The Lord makes living things. The angel-like figures t symbolise still the number of the days. 4. The Lord creates the quadrupeds. (Cross over to the other side to see the remainder better.) 5. The Lord makes man as a small dark red figure, not yet living. 6. *The Lord rests on the seventh day and blesses it. The six days of the week, already past, are symbolised by six angels behind the Lord ; the seventh day, personified, is receiving the Lord’s blessing. 7. The Lord breathes into man the breath of life, represented by a small winged soul. Note in all these early mosaics the intense symbolism. 8. The Lord takes Adam into Paradise, the four rivers of which are represented by four recumbent River Gods with urns—a classical survival. Many minor symbolic points too numerous to mention may be noted by the curious observer. (Cross over again.) {3rd tier.] I. Adam names the beasts. 2. The Lord puts Adam into a deep sleep, and draws Eve from his side to the R. *3. The Lord presents Eve to Adam. 4. The serpent tempts Eve. 5. Eve plucks the apple, and (twice represented in the same scene) gives it to Adam. 6. Adam and Eve clothe them-selves with leaves. (Cross over.) 7. The Lord enquires of Adam, who answers, “The woman thou gayest unto me,” etc. 8. The Lord chides Adam and Eve. 9. Adam and Eve hear their sentence of punishment. Io. *The Lord gives Adam and Eve garments, (very naïve.) I2. The Lord expels Adam and Eve from the gate of Paradise ; to the R. they labour outside the garden. (All these subjects are closely copied from Byzantine originals of the 5th century. Designs almost identical are found in the very ancient illuminated Greek Bible of the Cottonian collection in the British Museum.)

In the pendentives, below the cupola, are four admirable *six-winged seraphs. Observe how exquisitely they, and the decoration beneath them, are adapted for filling the space assigned them. Under these, over the doorway of St. Clement, the history of Genesis is continued. The command to be fruitful and multiply ; the birth of Abel, Cain to the R. ; Cain and Abel offer sacrifices—with an interesting rhyming hexameter.’ Next, on the wall to the R., over the door into the Cappella Zen—below, L., Cain and Abel go forth into the field ; R. Cain kills Abel ,; above, L., Cain is angry ; R., the Lord (represented here and elsewhere in these mosaics by a hand showing from a firmament) enquires of Cain what he has done to his brother. In the arch by the outer portal is the Curse of Cain.

On the under side of the arch between this first cupola and the main portal (door of St. Mark) is represented the History of Noah. It begins on the L. side, towards the Piazza. Above, the Lord, as a hand from a firmament, (a recurrent point which I will not again notice,) gives the command to Noah to build the ark ; then, the building of the ark. 2nd tier : the clean and unclean animals enter the ark, by sevens and by pairs respectively. 3rd tier: the family of Noah enter the ark. R. side, towards the church ; above, the Deluge ; (observe the rain 😉 Noah sends out the raven and the dove. 2nd tier: the return of the dove with the olive branch ; the exit from the ark ; (notice the escaping lion.) 3rd tier: Noah’s sacrifice, and the dispersal of the animals.

The lattice work, with inscription beneath, opposite these last mosaics, forms the tomb of Doge Vitale Falier, made up of antique fragments. The great Doge, in whose reign the body of St. Mark was miraculously recovered, lies in an early Christian sarcophagus. The wife of Doge Vitale Michiel occupies a similar tomb beyond the principal door-way.

Continue the series of mosaics beyond the main portal. The mosaics on the under side of the arch between the door of St. Mark and that of St. Peter begin on the inner or R. side. Above: Noah plants a vineyard ; the drunkenness of Noah ; Ham sees his father’s nudity and announces the fact to Shem and Japhet. Below: Shem and Japhet cover their father with a robe ; the curse of Ham ; the burial of Noah. L. side, the building of Babel ; from above, the Lord observes it in the heavens ; then, the Lord descends in a glory of angels to confound the languages.

The next door is that of St. Peter, with his image in a lunette above it. This section of the Atrium contains the Story of Abraham ; it begins in the second cupola just above the head of St. Peter, and reads to the R. The Lord chooses Abraham, and the departure of Abraham with a great cavalcade of camels from Ur of the Chaldees ; Lot is made prisoner by the king of Sodom ; the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedec, both named ; Abraham’s interview with the king of Sodom ; Sarah brings Hagar to Abraham ; the flight of Hagar; the angel comforts Hagar in the wilderness ; the birth of Ishmael ; the institution of the rite of circumcision ; the last subject, very obscure, represents, I think, the circumcision of the stranger “bought with money.)

In the arch above the figure of St. Peter, L., Abraham receives the three angels : R., he ministers to them at table, while Sarah at the door of the tent laughs at the prediction of the birth of Isaac. Opposite, above the outer door, the birth of Isaac ; his circumcision. In the pendentives of this cupola are medallions of the Four Greater Prophets.

The under side of the arch between the 2nd and 3rd cupolas has a figure of Justice, (the first of a series of Virtues which begins here,) and the two pillar saints, St. Alipios and St. Simeon Stylites, very curious.

Corner cupola, the Story of Joseph ; it begins by the middle of the inner arch, just above the figure of Charity : Joseph’s dream of the sheaves which bow down to the twelfth sheaf ; Joseph tells his dream to his brothers ; the brothers complain to Jacob, who reproves Joseph ; Jacob sends out Joseph to find his brethren ; Joseph discovers them (notice in these two cases his bundle) ; the brethren hide Joseph in the well ; the brethren feast, while the Ishmaelites approach with their camels ; Joseph is taken out of the well the brothers sell him to the Ishmaelites; the Ishmaelites with their camels, conduct him to Egypt ; Reuben seeks Joseph in the well ; Jacob’s sons show their father the torn and bloody coat, with the grief of Jacob.

The pendentives have medallions of four prophets, Eli, Samuel, Nathan, Habakkuk, holding rolls with inscriptions. I omit notice of many beautiful decorative bands and arches. The reader must observe these points for himself.

The half-dome, at the end of the Atrium, looking N., contains a feeble representation of the Judgment of Solomon, 16th century. Beneath it is the tomb of Doge Bartolomeo Gradonico (d. 1342), consisting of an early Pisan sarcophagus, with our Lady and Child, St. Mark (his patron as Doge), and St. Bartholomew (his personal patron), presenting the Doge to our Lady ; at the corners, an Annunciation : beneath is an interesting inscription. Annunciations and presentations of the deceased by his patrons are habitual features on Venetian tombs.

The under side of the arch between the corner cupola and the first cupola of the northern branch has in its centre a good Byzantine figure of Charity ; R., St. Phocas, the Greek patron saint of sailors, and therefore very appropriate to a commercial and seafaring city ; L., a pool modern figure of St. Christopher wading through the river with the infant Christ.

The first north cupola contains the continuation of the History of Joseph. The mosaics of this portion of the church are remarkable for their increased story-telling faculty, in which respect they are unequalled in St. Mark’s. The story begins just over the figure of Hope, in the arch beyond it : Joseph is sold to Potiphar; (observe the costumes of the Ishmaelites and the Egyptians 😉 Potiphar confides his whole household to Joseph ; Potiphar’s wife tempts Joseph ; Joseph flees from Potiphar’s wife, leaving his coat behind him ; the woman shows the coat to all her house-hold ; arrest of Joseph, who is condemned to imprisonment ; Pharaoh, throned and crowned, sends to prison the Chief Baker and the Chief Butler ; the dreams of the Baker and Butler ; Joseph interprets them.

The pendentives continue the story, beginning on the R. (inner, or south-east) angle : Pharaoh recalls the Chief Butler ; the birds devour the Chief Baker ; Pharaoh’s dream ; the seven lean kine devour the seven fat ones.

Arch to the R. (between the Butler and Baker) ; above : Pharaoh’s dream of the well-favoured and ill-favoured ears ; below: Pharaoh asks the interpretation of his dream of his wise men ; the Chief Butler tells him of Joseph.

In the half =dome opposite : feeble and mannered Renaissance mosaic of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream. Beneath it, Doge Marino Morosini (d. 1253) is buried in an early Christian sarcophagus, the inscription on which alone is of his own period. The sarcophagus represents, above, in the centre, Christ, flanked by the twelve Apostles ; in the lower tier, Our Lady and four saints, undetermined, separated by four censers. The style of the sarcophagus is that of the 6th century.

Under the arch between this cupola and the next, in the centre, Hope ; beneath it, a beautiful Byzantine mosaic of *St. Agnes, with a modern one. of St. Catharine ; then, St. Sylvester the Pope, and a Renaissance figure of San Geminiano, (whose church at that time occupied part of the Piazza,) from a cartoon by Titian.

I will not so minutely describe the subjects in the next two cupolas, as they may by this time, I think, be followed by the reader on the strength of his own scriptural know-ledge. The 2nd north cupola contains the remainder of the History of Joseph, the story in this case beginning at the opposite side from what has hitherto been usual, just above the figure of Hope in the arch last described. The subjects are : Jacob sending his sons to Egypt for corn ; Joseph treats them as spies ; Jacob’s sons repent ; Simeon is bound ; the corn is placed in the granaries ; the birth of Ephraim; the Egyptians clamour for bread; Joseph opens the granaries.

In the pendentives, the four Evangelists. R. lunette; the sons of Jacob empty their sacks ; Jacob sends Benjamin Benjamin received by Joseph. On the under side of the arch which spans this lunette are five Roman saints, Cecilia, Cassianus, Cosmo, Damian, Gaudens, and one, restored as St. Marinus, but more probably, (since she balances Cecilia,) the virgin saint Marina, who dressed as a man to preserve her virginity.

Arch leading to the next section : the ” Queen of the South,” holding her roll of prophecy ; below her, St. Nicholas and St. Blaise (Biagio) ; below again, two Dominican saints, St. Dominic, and St. Peter Martyr.

In the last cupola is the Story of Moses, which may now be safely left to the reader. The pendentives contain four prophets.

Over the doorway at the end, known as the Doorway of St. John, is a large mosaic in a half-dome, representing Our Lady with the Child, seated, with her Greek monogram, flanked by St. John the Evangelist and St. Mark ; her throne and cushion are meant to be characteristically Byzantine. But this is a tolerable modern imitation, dating from 184o. It lacks the grandeur and solemnity of the simple old work. It probably replaces an older mosaic of St. John, to whom the door and the chapel opposite (now that of the Blessed Virgin) were formerly dedicated.