St Mark’s Basilica is not only the religious centre of Venice, but also an expression of the political, intellectual and economic aspiration and accomplishments of a city; that for centuries was at the forefront of European culture.
It is a monument not just to the glory of God; but also to the glory of Venice.
Above: St Mark’s Basilica and Campanile in the Piazza, lit with the last rays of evening light
Overlooking the eastern side of the Piazza San Marco with a mixture of religious serenity and monumental magnificence; it is attached to the Doge’s Palace at the site of the fine Gothic archway into the palace’s interior courtyard, called the “Porta della Carta”.
St Mark’s Basilica functioned as the resting place of St Mark and the doges’ personal chapel and linked its religious function to the political life of the city.
It was endowed with all the riches the Republic’s admirals and merchants could plunder and bring back from the Orient (as the Byzantine Empire was then known); earning it the name “Chiesa D’Oro”, or Golden Church. All these fabulous embellishments gave it a degree of “ancient-art credibility”; lacking in a city with no roman past.
When the present church was begun in the 11th century, rare coloured marbles and gold leaf mosaics were used in its decoration. The 12th and 13th centuries were a period of intense military expansion and by the early 13th century, the facades began to bear testimony to Venice’s conquests, including such treasures as the four gilt-bronze ancient Roman horses (quadriga), taken from Constantinople in 1204.
The basilica has been a symbol of Venice since the 11th century, when the old church that stood here was knocked down and which houses the remains of Saint Mark, brought back from Egypt and replacing St Theodore as the new patron saint of the city. The city built a temple, that symbolised the power and achievements of the Serenissima Republic.
Above: Southern (and originally the main) aspect facing the basin; showing upper arcade with Gothic ornamentation and terrace.
A heartfelt homage to Byzantine art, this basilica, consecrated in 1094, was built in the image of and similar to two basilicas in the city of Constantinople: Saint Sofia and the Apostle Saints. It possesses a Greek cross ground plan and five large cupolas. Its imposing appearance, of an unequalled beauty throughout the city, looks clearly to this Orient that provided so much wealth for the Venetians.
It is likely that both Byzantine and Italian architects and craftsmen were employed in the construction and decoration.
The slow process of ornamentation, which began with its construction and was completed in the 15th century, gives it a certain eclecticism, which for example, unites the Gothic elements on the tops of the arcades with the byzantine use of mosaics.
The upper level pinnacles and mosaics date from the 15th and 17th centuries respectively; including the Gothic upper arches.
It was only later, after Napoleon’s conquest and the fall of the Republic; that in 1807 did it take over from San Pietro di Castello, as the cathedral of Venice. This was a fundamental fact for Venice to be constituted as an independent episcopal seat.
Since that time, the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark (Italian: Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco), commonly known as St Mark’s Basilica (Italian: Basilica di San Marco; Venetian: Baxéłega de San Marco); is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice and the seat of the Patriarch of Venice.
Left: St Mark, patron saint of Venice towering over the Piazza, guarded by four angels; symbolised in the form of the winged lion.
The first church built here was dedicated to Saint Theodore, Venice’s first patron saint.
In 829, at the instructions of Doge Justinian Partecipacius; a chapel enlarging the church was built to also house the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist.
Consecrated in 832, nothing remains of this church, which was damaged in the fires that raged during the revolt against Doge Pietro IV Candiano in 976.
It was rebuilt by Doge Pietro Orseolo and this second church stood for 80 years, before it too was replaced by the current building. Little is known of the appearance of these churches, despite much conjecture and some archaeological research.
The new basilica (Left) probably began in 1063, under Doge Domenico Contarini and consecrated in 1094 by Doge Vitale Falier. Much decorated in later centuries, the current structure is substantially this 11th century church.
It was originally of brick construction, with most of the marble cladding, columns, friezes and statues, that we see today including the four famous horses; nearly all plunder from the 4th Crusade’s capture and pillage of Constantinople in 1204, added during the first half of the 13th century. These embellishments give it some of the ancient-art credibility lacking in a city with no roman past.
It functioned initially as a martyrium for Saint Mark and a palace chapel for the doges, central to ceremonial Venice. Only later did it take over from San Pietro di Castello as the cathedral of Venice, a move enforced by Napoleon in 1807.
Left: Plan of Basilica. original 11th century Byzantine church (in bold). It possesses a Greek cross ground plan and five large cupolas (central and western dome, larger than other three). To the west, is the slightly later addition of the Narthex, across the whole of the frontage with two side arms enclosing the nave. The southern arm was later closed off.
Alter facing East
FUNCTION AND ADMINISTRATION
During the 13th century, the emphasis of the church’s function seems to have changed from being the private chapel of the Doge, to that of a “state church”; with increased power for the procurators.
It was the location for the great public ceremonies of the state, such as the installation and burials of Doges. Due to demand for grander tombs and the lack of space, from the 15th century Santi Giovanni e Paolo; became the usual burial place.
The function of the basilica remained the same until 1807, after the end of the Venetian Republic, when the basilica finally became subject to the local bishop, the Patriarch of Venice. Interestingly, even from the 12th century, he had a throne there; opposite the doge’s.
The procurators, an important organ of the Republic of Venice, were in charge of administration; based at the Procuratie in St Mark’s Square.
All building and restoring works were directed by the “protos”; great architects such as Jacopo Sansovino and Baldassarre Longhena, held the office. Procurators and protos still exist and perform the same tasks for the Patriarchate.
The exterior of the west facade overlooking the Piazza, is divided in three registers as seen in the photo below:
- Lower arcade with five portals (one larger central entrance and two laterals each side).
- Upper arcade (one larger central window and two laterals each side) and terrace; topped with Gothic ornamentation of the upper arches and along the roof-line with statuary and pinnacles with enclosed figures. Note, above the central window is St Mark with six protective angels and symbolised in the winged lion below.
- The domes (cupuola) with sheet lead covering (two larger central and west domes and three smaller; east, south and north ones).
The eclectic mix of Byzantine and Gothic elements, suggest a visual continuity with the adjoining Doge’s Palace.
In the lower register of the facade, five round-arched portals, (larger central with left and right lateral portals), enveloped by polychrome marble columns; open into the narthex (or atrium) through bronze lined wooden doors.
The cycle of mosaics in the lunettes on the famous facade facing Piazza San Marco, that represent the transfer of the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria; read from right to left. The main approach was always from the lagoon and the facade facing south, was then the first sight of the church and therefore had greater importance and impact. (Originally, there was a dock for boats in the Piazzetta, in front of the Doge’s palace; that was filled in to form the Molo).
Of the five mosaics in the arches, only the one over the first door on the left is an original from the 13th century; the rest being replacements made from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Being the last in the sequence this left-hand mosaic is of the body of St Mark being taken into the Basilica and shows the façade as it looked in around 1250.
In a corner of the south facade near to the Porta della Carta, is a sculptural group in red porphyry, called the “Tetrarchs” (Photo Left). Dating from the 4th century, it is known that they come from Constantinople. They are probably the bearded emperors Diocletion and Maximilian and the clean-shaven Caesars Galerius and Constantius I.
In an attempt to stabilise the Roman Empire after the crisis of the third century, the Emperor Diocletian imposed a new Imperial office structure: a four co-emperor ruling plan called “The Tetrarchy”. The famous porphyry statue probably represents the interdependence of the four rulers.
Above this is the terrace or balcony of the upper arcade, accessed through the Museum via the steep narrow staircase on the right-hand side of the Atrium. This gives a marvellous view across the Piazza and was where the Doges took their place for official ceremonies.
Above the central portico, are the Four Horses of Saint Mark that were installed on the balcony in about 1254; which are replicas of the originals that can be found inside in the Museum. They were moved indoors to protect them from acid rain in the 1970’s.
They date to Classical Antiquity and presumably were originally the team pulling a quadriga chariot, probably containing an emperor. The horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and these figures were brought over as booty from Constantinople by Doge Enrico Dandolo in 1204; at the time of the Fourth Crusade.
They are not strictly bronze, but actually made of copper, with a little tin (c.2%). The date of their creation is now thought to be after the 2nd century AD, due to the difficulty of casting copper and the use of mercury gilding; making an earlier date unlikely.
Napoleon took them to Paris in 1797, where they ended up on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Tuilleries; until they were returned to Venice in 1815 following his defeat. They were temporarily removed during both World Wars.
Crowning the roof-line of the upper arcade, are the statues of Theological and Cardinal Virtues, four Warrior Saints, Constantine, Demetrius, George, Theodosius and the dominant St Mark; watching over the city. Under St Mark, surrounded by six angels and above the central window of the facade; is his symbol of the Winged Lion, holding an open book reading “Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus” (Peace to you Mark my evangelist).
The upper level of mosaics in the lunettes of the lateral arches has scenes from the “ Life of Christ” and are all post-Renaissance replacements.
In the 13th century the external height of the domes was greatly increased to a height of 43 metres; by hollow drums raised on a wooden framework and covered with metal.
This change makes the domes visible from the piazza. Of the five domes, the central and western domes are larger than the other three and is is based on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
On the inside the original domes are shallower at a height of 28.13 metres. The higher external dome heights, adds to the Gothic visual continuity and grandeur with the Doge’s Palace.
LEFT: View from the campanile, north-east over the Domes.
The separate Campanile, opposite the church’s facade, was originally begun under the doge Pietro Tribuno (died 912). It was adapted into its present familiar form early in the 16th century. In 1902 it totally collapsed, but by 1912 it had been rebuilt on its original site.
*** Please refer to my separate detailed and illustrated post “The Campanile of St Mark’s. Link at bottom of page.
As soon as you enter you are in the Narthex (atrium, porch, entrance hall), that stretches across the width of the facade and has two right-angled branches that enclose the nave up to the transept. The date when it was first built is uncertain, but was most probably the 13th century.
Later, the southern branch was closed to obtain the Baptistery (14th century) and the Zen Chapel (16th century).
The narthex prepares visitors’ eyes for the atmosphere of the gilded interior, just as the Old Testament stories represented in its 13th century mosaic ceiling; prepares them for the New Testament decoration in the interior.
The main subjects are Genesis and the life of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses and the compositions are remarkably similar to those of the “Cotton Genesis”; an important Greek illuminated manuscript copy of the Book of Genesis. About a hundred of the 359 miniatures in the manuscript are used. It is presumed that this reached Venice after the Fourth Crusade. Now in the British Library; it was badly damaged in a fire of 1731.
On the wall above and at the sides of the main doorway are the Four Evangelists and saints, 11th century mosaics; the oldest in the building and that decorated the old facade to St Mark’s, before the narthex was built.
Entering into the Nave, the interior shows the Greek-cross layout, with a central dome and a dome in each of the four, square bays; these aisle’d bays meeting in a crossing, dominated by huge piers pierced with passages.
Following the tenets of Byzantine religious architecture, St. Mark’s displays the principle of bi-partition into earthly zone (floor and walls) and celestial part (vaulted ceilings and cupolas). Purpose and function are underlined by the different materials used to cover the masonry.
Mosaics. The upper levels of the interior are completely covered with bright mosaics, covering an area of about 8000 sq. metres. The great majority use the traditional background of gold glass tesserae, with many varieties of marble forming the imagery. In the restricted lighting their colours glow, giving a magical atmosphere; allowing you to experience the glory of the basilica.
The earliest mosaics date from the late 12th century, found in the Narthex and was probably carried out by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at the island of Torcello Cathedral.
The taking of Constantinople in 1204 was a deciding moment for the mosaic decoration of the basilica. Large amounts of mosaic material were brought in and a Venetian school of mosaic decoration began to develop. Moreover, a 4th or 5th century treasure, the “Cotton Genesis”, the earliest illustrated Bible; was brought from Constantinople. It supplied the designs for the exquisite mosaics of the Creation and the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses; that adorn the narthex (entrance hall). They are among the most beautiful and best preserved in all the basilica – there is something wonderful about the directness of the imagery in their 2-dimensional form.
The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the late 13th century.
A fire in 1419 caused serious damage and the Venetians had apparently lost their capacity for the reparative work required. They turned to the Signoria of Florence for help, sending the famous artist Paolo Uccello.
Initially the restorations tried to retain the medieval compositions and replicate a medieval style, but from 1509 the policy changed and further work was in contemporary styles.
From the 1520’s onward, a series of Venetian painters were able to get commissions for the replacement of undamaged areas in what was considered to be superior modern style. However, from 1610, a number of conservation-minded decrees attempted to restrain the process.
As mentioned above, restorations and replacements were often necessary thereafter, or done even when not necessary and great painters such as Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Tintoretto and his son Domenico ; were among those who produced the designs for the mosaicists.
Titian and the Padovanino prepared the cartoons for the sacristy, built in the late 15th century. Other mosaics decorate the Baptistery, the Mascoli Chapel, St Isidor Chapel and the Zen Chapel.
Of special interest is the Pantocrator, found in the apse and the apostles represented on the dome of Pentecosts; the figures of which are in a static and serene Byzantine style.
Special mention should be made of the skill of the craftsmen who were entrusted to decorate the central dome of the Ascension, situated in the intersection between the nave and the transept. In the central part there is a majestic figure of Jesus Christ dressed in a golden tunic that stands out over a starry sky. Around it there are four angels. Further down we can see the Virgin flanked by angels and the twelve apostles.
Unlike most Italian churches, San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings around the 13th century and continued to add them until the 19th century. This was probably partly due to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae and also to Venetian conservatism.
The Floor. It covers an area of about 2100 sq. metres and is made of inlaid marble and glass (12th century, but with many restorations). The floor is entirely formed into geometric patterns (often reflecting sacred geometry) and animal and floral designs (reflecting sacred symbolism).
The geometrical organisation is based on an iconographic programme, which is very complex and the positioning observes the principles of symmetry; something which could be more easily perceived and understood, by the people of the Middle Ages.
The techniques used includes “opus sectile” (obtained by setting out pieces of different coloured marble to create the most varied geometrical forms) and “opus tessellatum” (obtained with tiny pieces of marble or glass used to create floral motifs or animal figures).
Both techniques have their origins in antiquity. Coexistence of the two in St. Marks, testifies to the developing wealth of the city. For it not only bought up highly precious marbles, but also secured a workforce of craftsmen who, in all probability, were brought to Venice from Constantinople or Byzantine Greece; as were the architects and mosaicists.
Because of settlement and increasing periods of acqua alta; the floors are very uneven and the main tourist walkways are heavily matted. Inside, your progress is roped-off and guided, with nowhere to sit.
Note: Sacred Geometry is fundamental to the construction of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques and to their interior design and proportions. Passed down through Greco-Egyptian culture, to ancient Rome and then inspiring the medieval Roman and Gothic architecture of European cathedrals; which incorporated this geometry of sacred symbolism.
Left: The Dodecahedron. (In traditional symbolism, the dodecahedron was the form that best represented the manifestation of God in Nature. For Plato it symbolised “Cosmic Harmony”. It is a three-dimensional representation of the symmetry of the pentagon and the “Golden Ratio”, that occurs naturally throughout the natural world.)
Please see my detailed linked post on “Sacred Geometry” in the category of “History and Architecture”.
The Presbytery. The eastern arm has a raised presbytery with a crypt beneath. The presbytery is separated from the nave by an altar screen or iconostasis, formed by eight red marble columns crowned with a high Crucifix and statues by Pier Paolo and Jacobello Dalle Masegne; a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture (late 14th century).
(NB. In church architecture, the presbytery or chancel is the space around the altar, including the choir and the sanctuary, at the liturgical east end of a traditional Christian church building. It may terminate in an apse).
Behind the screen, marble banisters with Sansovino’s bronze statues of the Evangelists and Paliari’s of the Four Doctors; mark the access to the high altar, which contains St Mark’s relics.
Above the high altar is a canopy (“ciborium”) on 6th century carved alabaster columns, decorated with fine reliefs.
The altarpiece is the famous Pala d’Oro, a masterpiece of Byzantine craftsmanship, originally designed for an antependium (alter frontal decoration piece), made for Doge Pietro Orseolo in 976. It was remade and placed at the back of the altar in 1105 and then remade again twice in 1209 and 1345.
This masterpiece is made of gold and silver and now has 187 enamel plaques incorporating 1,300 pearls, 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds and 400 garnets. They are all original and highly polished, unfaceted gems. The original altar frontal is now in the treasury.
The original bottom section showed scenes from the Life of St Mark, but now go along the top and down the sides of the central section. The main central section has Christ in the centre, with the Four Evangelists in circular panels and flanking rows of the Apostles, with angels above and the twelve prophets below.
The 1209 ‘renewal’ saw the addition along the top of the seven larger panels looted from Constantinople. Here six panels of scenes from the Gospels flank the Archangel Michael.
The 1345 work saw the goldsmith Giovanni Paolo Benesegna commissioned to make a Gothic frame and add more precious stones.
In 1432/4, Paolo Veneziano was commissioned to paint wood panels to cover the altarpiece which was only displayed on feast days. These panels became known as the “weekday altarpiece” and is now in the treasury.
The choir stalls are embellished with inlay by Fra Sebastiano Schiavone and above them on both sides are three reliefs by Sansovino.
The interior is unquestionably Byzantine, but the altar being in the presbytery and the presbytery being raised to accommodate the crypt; is a much more Italian feature.
Behind the presbytery are the sacristy and a 15th-century church consecrated to St Theodore (the first patron saint of Venice); where is displayed a painting (Child’s Adoration) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
On the right of the screen is the platform from which the newly elected doge appeared. In the left aisle are St Clement’s chapel and the Holy Host altar. Here is the pillar where St Mark’s relics were rediscovered in 1094, as depicted in the interesting mosaics of the right aisle (where the entrance to St Mark’s Treasure is).
On the left of the screen is the platform for readings from Scripture; on the right aisle are St Peter’s chapel and the Madonna Nicopeia, a venerated Byzantine icon. On the northern side are St Isidor’s chapel and the Mascoli chapel.
The Treasury. There is a Euro 3 entrance fee for the Treasury, which consists of two rooms.
On the left after paying, is a small sanctuary full of reliquaries and saint’s bits.
The actual Treasury in an impressive square and domed space with what is now a unique collection of Byzantine portable objects in metalwork, enamel and hardstone carving, most looted from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade. There are locally made items, important Islamic works, especially in rock crystal and some from Northern Europe.
The Museum. The Euro 3 entrance fee is the best value with mosaic fragments, up-close views of mosaics in the left transept, the original horses (quadriga), models and plans and the view and great photo opportunities from the outside terrace.
There’s also the new Sala dei Banchetti, housing mostly tapestries, but also Paolo Veneziano’s cover for the Pala d’Oro and cases of graduals.
The fascinating tale of acquiring Saint Mark’s relics
Around 813 some Venetian merchants travelled to Alexandria intending to ‘acquire’ the relics of Saint Mark.
Two of their number, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello, learnt from the custodians of the sanctuary where the saint’s bones were kept; that they were in danger of being destroyed by the Arab governor of Alexandria. It was said that he was going to use marble and columns from Christian churches, to build himself a palace in the city of Babylon.
The custodians agreed to replace the saints remains with the nearby body of Saint Claudia. The relics were loaded aboard ship, hidden in wicker baskets and covered with cabbage leaves and pork; the latter considered unclean by Muslims.
When customs men came to inspect the cargo, their disgust made them wave the baskets through without inspection. On the voyage back to Venice, the saint appeared to the resting sailors and saved them from shipwreck.
The relics were initially placed in the Ducal Palace, awaiting the building of the new basilica. Thereby, St Mark became the patron saint of Venice.
In 976 they were lost in a fire. Only at a re-consecration in 1094, did the saint himself, reveal the location of his remains to Doge Vitale Falier and the people gathered in the basilica. He extended an arm from a pier on the right-hand side of the nave and the church was also filled with a sweet smell!
The relics housed here have included an arm of Saint George, a stool which belonged to the Virgin, a finger of Mary Magdalene, a knife used at the last supper, the stone on which John the Baptist was beheaded, a rib of Saint Stephen, and the sword Saint Peter used to cut off Malchus’s right ear. The latter, a servant of Caiaphas, being one of those attempting to arrest Jesus.
Music and the Cappella Marciana
The spacious interior of the building with its multiple choir lofts, was the inspiration for the development of a Venetian polychoral style, among the composers appointed maestro di cappella at the choir of St Mark’s.
The style was first developed by a foreigner, Adrian Willaert and was continued by Italian organists and composers; Andrea Gabrieli, his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi . Their music took advantage of the spacious architecture and led to the development of polychoral and antiphonal textures. An example of this technique is found in “In Ecclesiis” by Giovanni Gabrieli.
It was a new way of connecting music and word that defined, with the aid of new instrumental techniques; a new conception in the sound.
The Basilica in Art
There are countless views of the Piazza which feature the Basilica. Most notable is Gentile Bellini’s “Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco of 1496”; was painted for the Grand Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista; but is now in the Accademia. It shows us how the Basilica looked in the late 15th century, with its original lunette mosaics.
Three paintings by Canaletto of the interior during Easter celebrations exist; two in the British Royal Collection and one in Montreal. John Ruskin made many fine sketches of details.
Dickens wrote in Pictures from Italy:
“A grand and dreamy structure, of immense proportions; golden with old mosaics; redolent of perfumes; dim with the smoke of incense; costly in treasure of precious stones and metals, glittering through iron bars; holy with the bodies of deceased saints; rainbow-hued with windows of stained glass; dark with carved woods and coloured marbles; obscure in its vast heights, and lengthened distances; shining with silver lamps and winking lights; unreal, fantastic, solemn, inconceivable throughout”.
Please click on the links below, to see my other related posts:
October – March/April (Easter):
Basilica: 9.30 – 5.00 (last admission 4.45)
Sunday and holidays: 2.00 – 4.00 (entrance free)
St. Mark’s Museum: 9.45– 4.45 €5
Pala d’Oro: 9.45 – 4.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 – 4.00 €2
Treasury: 9.45 – 4.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 – 4.00 €3
March/April (Easter) – November:
Basilica: 9.45 – 5.00 (last admission 4.45) Sunday and holidays: 2.00 – 5.00 (entrance free)
St. Mark’s Museum: 9.45 – 4.45 €5
Pala d’Oro: 9.45 – 5.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 – 5.00 €2
Treasury: 9.45- 5.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 – 5.00 €3
Official website: HERE
Vaporetto: Vallaresso (San Marco)
Note: To skip the line at the basilica entrance during the busiest times of the year; reserve your arrival on the website, at no extra cost. Remember that this is a sacred place: guards will deny admission to people in shorts, sleeveless dresses and tops.
Please click the link to see my other posts in the “Favourite Churches category”: HERE
St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica
St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica
St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica
St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica St Mark’s Basilica