The Lion of St Mark representing Mark the Evangelist, in the form of a winged lion holding a Bible; is the symbol of the city of Venice and formerly of the Venetian Republic.
It is also found in the symbol of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. It appears in both merchant and military naval flags of the Italian Republic. Since 1949, the Lion of St Mark is also the symbol of the award of the Venice Film Festival, the “Golden Lion”.
The lion, considered as the king of the beasts, is one of the most widely known animal symbols. It has been used in art, architecture and literature and has been depicted on flags, coins and in heraldry.
It is present in the squares and historical buildings of all the cities that have been dominated by the Serenissima Republic; on the Venetian badges of civil, military and religious use.
The lion is one of the most preferred symbols of leadership and emperors. Since many centuries, it has been used as a sign for all that is considered as majestic because of its noble character, alertness, courage, strength, and power.
It is seen in the Asian, African, and European cultures. The lion is carved on on buildings, or erected as statues and believed to safeguard castles, bridges, churches, and tombs. Also it is symbolic of values like self-control, strength, courage, and power. Today, the lion is mostly used as a symbol of fearlessness; as the roar of the animal is firm and strong.
LEFT: St Mark on top of the Basilica and his symbolic Winged Lion.
BELOW: The Doge with the Winged Lion of St Mark – Doge’s Palace.
The Christian symbolism comes from an ancient legend. The lion symbolises the strength of the Evangelist’s word, the wings the spiritual elevation, while the halo is the traditional Christian symbol of holiness.
The griffin, another related mythical half eagle-half lion beast, was also considered as a Christian symbol for the Church’s ideals on marriage and was also used to symbolise Jesus.
Venetian tradition states that when Mark was travelling through Europe, he arrived at a lagoon in Venice, whereby when resting an angel appeared to him and said, “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” (“Peace be with thee, O Mark, my evangelist. Here thy body will rest.”). He returned to Alexandria in Egypt where he founded the first Christian church.
St. Mark has been considered as Venice’s patron saint from the time his remains were stolen from a tomb in Alexandria by two merchants, and was brought to Venice in 828 AD.
Initially, St. Theodore of Amasea was the patron saint of Venice. In the Piazzetta di San Marco overlooking the Bacino, he can be seen on top of one of the two famous high columns; alongside the winged lion of St Mark.
Over time, the city of Venice developed and prospered and it was decided that a more esteemed saint was required. Hence, St. Mark was interned in the Basilica, dedicated to his name and became the patron saint of Venice. His representation as a winged lion became the symbol of the lagoon city.
The symbol of the lion comes from St. Mark’s description in his Gospel, which starts with the words “remember the voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness, rises like a roar, announcing the coming of Jesus to men.” His voice was said to be like that of a lion roaring.
The book also tells that the lion was one of the four creatures standing around the throne of the Almighty. The lion is a symbol of power and majesty. The winged lion symbolism appeared in Prophet Ezekiel’s vision where four winged creatures represent the four evangelists; Matthew as a human, Mark as a lion, Luke as a bull, and John as an eagle. An open book is seen lying below the front legs of the lion. It contains the text, “Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus”. The book is believed to symbolise the state’s sovereignty.
LEFT: The “Tetrach” with Christ and four winged creatures representing the Evangelists.
Two major variations on the winged lion.
The first form and most common, is as a winged lion resting on water, holding St. Mark’s Gospel under a paw; to symbolise dominance over the seas.
These animals can be seen all around the Mediterranean, as statues, carved plaques on buildings or on top of a usually classical stone columns.
A lion with the open book and the phrase “Pax tibi Marce, meus evangelist” symbolises times of peace; whilst a closed book and a sword in its paws, symbolises the state at war.
Another variation includes a halo over his head (true Christian depiction).
In some depictions the lion rests his front paws on the ground, often in cities with rivers or in ones close to water, indicating the Venetian balanced power on land and sea.
The second form is known as the lion “in moleca“, (in the form of a small crab). Here the lion is depicted full-faced with its wings circled around the head and resembling the claws of a crustacean.
It is emerging from water, so that the lion “in moleca” is associated with the lagoon and the city, whereas the standing winged lion is thought to be more associated with Venetian territory around the Mediterranean.
St Mark and St Theodore – The Columns of the Piazzetta di San Marco
Near to the waterfront, overlooking the Bacino in the Piazzetta di San Marco, are two tall granite columns, bearing ancient symbols of the two patron saints of Venice.
St Theodore. On the western side, adjacent to the Biblioteca, is Saint Theodore, who was the patron of the city before St Mark. He holds a spear and stands on a crocodile, that represents the dragon; which he was said to have slain.
Saint Theodore of Amasea, is venerated as a warrior saint and Great Martyr in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. He is also known as Theodore Tyron. “Tiro” is a word from classical Latin meaning a “recently enlisted soldier or recruit”. He was thought to have been serving in Roman army in northern Turkey.
He was martyred in the early 4th century for rebelling against pagan worship, in a time of christian persecution.
The “Christianisation” of the Thracian horseman iconography, symbolised the fight of good over evil. Iconographic representations of St Theodore as dragon-slayer on horseback, are seen as early as the 7th and certainly by the 10th century.
The idea that that he could intervene in battles, became a particularly important attribute of St Theodore and he was adopted by Crusaders as their patron.
He is also depicted with another equestrian dragon slayer; St George, who later took over the dragon motif from St Theodore.
He became the first patron of Venice. The chapel of the Doge was dedicated to him until the 9th century, when the Venetian State wished to free itself from the influence of Byzantium and he was succeeded by St Mark.
St Mark. On the eastern side closer to the Doge’s Palace is the fifteen-foot bronze Lion of St Mark.
The exact provenance is unclear, but it is now thought possible that it was created between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd centuries BC; somewhere in the Hellenistic or Oriental Greek world.
The original bronze figure, taken as a whole, was likely significantly different from the lion of today and predating Christianity; would not have originally had any association with Saint Mark. It has been subject to extensive restoration and repair work at various times.
The columns are thought to have been erected either between 1172–1177, during the reign of Doge Sebastiano Ziani or about 1268. At the time, before the forming of the present wider Molo (quayside), they would have been on the edge of the lagoon; framing the entry to the city from the sea.
Gambling was permitted in the space between the columns and this right was said to have been granted as a reward, to the man who first raised the columns. Public executions also took place between the columns.
LEFT: Vladimir Lukič Borovikovskij
The lion of St Mark, remained in place until it was taken to France after Napoleon’s conquest of the Venetian Republic; during his 1797 campaign in Italy. In Paris, the lion was placed on top of the Fontaine des Invalides monument completed in 1804 and situated in the Place des Invalides.
After Napoleon’s downfall the Lion was repatriated to Venice, now part of the Austrian Empire. In late 1815, during the process of removal from Paris, it was again badly damaged and broken into many fragments. On arrival in Venice, they were stored at the Arsenale, before extensive reparation was carried out and finally the winged lion was returned to its column in April, 1816.
It was again moved from its pedestal for restoration at the end of the 1800’s and during the Second World War for safekeeping. The last major restoration took place in the 1990’s.
The Lion of St Mark – above main entrance to the Arsenal
For other posts, covering aspects of Christian Symbolism, please click on the links below:
—–The Lion of St Mark—–The Lion of St Mark—–The Lion of St Mark—–The Lion of St Mark—–The Lion of St Mark