Sain Mark’s Basilica - Venice cathedral


Cathedral of Venice Basilica


.Sain Mark’s Basilica is the cathedral  of Venice and perhaps the finest example of Byzantine architecture in the world.


Legend: legend has it that the Basilica stands in the spot that an angel indicated to St. Mark the Evangelist  as the  place where his body would rest in peace, while he was travelling to Rome on a ship. St. Mark died and was buried in Alexandria of Egypt and many devoted Venetian merchants, during their voyages to the East, would often stop in Alexandria to pray on the Evangelist grave. Until one day Two Venetian merchants, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello, decided to steal the corpse of St. Mark out of Alexandria by carrying it in a barrel full of pork meat to avoid Customs checks. The Venetians cheered triumphantly when St. Marks relics arrived in Venice and the Doge ordered to build a new church, the Basilica, as the new and final sepulcher for the Saint’s body. At the time, the relics of saints were considered as a very important tool to attract pilgrims and merchants, develop trade and cultural exchange and therefore grow business and wealth. Moreover the recovery of the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was especially important as Egypt was then controlled by the Islamic world.



Venice Basilica rooftopThe first construction dates to 828, but the present day Basilica (third construction), was built in 1063 under Doge Domenico Contarini. The construction took about 30 years to complete. Many of the decorations though, were added in the following centuries as a lot of decorative elements such as mosaics, capitals and columns, were brought to Venice as war bootie, especially after the conquest of Constantinople in the 4th Crusade.

Unfortunately the names of the architects who worked at the construction of the Basilica remain unknown; the predominant style is Greek-Byzantine with some references to Gothic, Venetian, Roman and Arabic styles. The church was conceived as the private chapel of the Doge and became cathedral only in 1807 following an edict issued by  Napoleon.



The exterior is made up of three different levels: lower level, terrace and domes:

Lower level:

The last Judgement - Venice Basilica

The last Judgement

Five arches, supported by marble columns, lead into the narthex (entrance porch) through bronze doors. The lunettes of the arches are decorated with mosaics whose subject is the relics of St. Mark’s body, apart from the central mosaic that depicts the Last Judgement. 

All the original mosaics had to be replaced with new versions of the same subject in the XVII and XIX century apart from the first on the left side, the Deposition of the Relics,  which is still the original work of art created in the XIII century.




The Deposition of the relics: a holy procession takes the body of St. Marks into the Basilica. The Doge receives the relics with his retinue of bishops, noblemen and ladies of the court. The deposition of the relics is also important because it shows the cathedral as It looked like in the XIII century. The Doge and his retinue are depicted with clothes that correspond to the fashion of the end of the XIII century. It is believed that the image of the Doge represents Lorenzo Tiepolo who was Doge of Venice from 1268 till his death in 1275.

On top of the semi-dome the inscription says: "Colocat hunc dignis plebs laudibus et colit hymnis ut Venetos servet ab hoste suos" (the people place his relics here, with worthy praises, and reverence him with hymns so that he protects the Venetians from the enemy"). The intent of this mosaic is to convey the idea that Venice was entrusted by God to rule over land and sea: it is a justification and glorification of Venice imperialism.



.Upper Level:

Venice St. Mark Basilica horses


Four bronze horses stand at the center of the balcony.

The horses used to adorn the Hippodrome of Constantinople and apparently they were part of a more complex work of art as they pulled a quadriga chariot with the statue of an emperor.

In ancient times, Chariots pulled by quadrigas were used to adorne many triumphal arches and this is the only quadriga specimen left in the world.

After the conquest of Constantinople during the IV Crusade, Doge Enrico Dandolo decided to send the horses to Venice as war bootie in 1204. 50 years later the horses were installed on the balcony.

The bronze horses displayed on the balcony are bronze replicas of the original statues, created by Lisippo, which are being kept in the Basilica St. Mark Venicemuseum.


The arch lunettes of the upper level display scenes from the Life of Christ. On top of the large central window is the gilded emblem of St. Mark: a winged lion that holds the book with the quote “Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus” (Peace to you Mark my evangelist).

On top of the arches are statues of the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, four Saint warrior Saints and St. Mark on top of the central arch with six angles at his side.


The Tetrarchs

The red porphyry statue located at the left side of Porta della Carta represent the four tetrarchs: Emperor Diocletian reformed the imperial organization by dividing the Empire in four areas each one governed by one ruler. Such organ was called “The Tetrarchy”. The statue of the Tetrarchs dates to the 3rd century and was taken by the Venetians from Costantinople around 1204 during the 4th crusade. Legend has it that four thieves who were trying to steal the treasure of  the Basilica, were caught in the act by St. Mark spirit who petrified them. The Venetians found their petrified bodies and installed them in the south-west corner of the Basilica.

On the right side of the Basilica are installed 2 pillars decorated with Sasanid patterns (grapes, peacocks, etc.). The pillars were installed in the XIII century as they were taken by the Venetians from the Monastery of St. John of Acre as bootie war of the battle of St. Sabas. The pillars were installed on the right side of the Basilica so that they could be seen by arriving ships from a distance.


The Narthex

The Narthex is the front porch decorated with mosaics that depict scenes from the Old Testament: Genesis, life of Noah, life of Abraham, life of Joseph and life of Moses. In the XIII century the Narthex ran around three sides of the Basilica but in the XIV and XVI century the southern part was closed to make room for the Baptistery and the Zen Chapel.

The scenes from the Old Testament in the external narthex prepare the visitors for the Advent of Christ, with representations of the New Testament, scenes from the Life of Jesus Christ, depicted in the mosaics of the interior.




The interior structure of the Basilica is modelled on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople: a Greek cross with five domes and three naves for each arm.  The Central and the western domes are bigger than the others. Lower level: walls and columns are entirely tiled with polychrome marble slabs in the lower level. The floor  is also tiled with marble slabs that form typical drawings from classic iconography (such as symbolic animals from the medieval Christian tradition and geometric modules), but also from Byzantine models (see the large marble slabs under the cross and under the Ascension dome).

Upper Level: the upper level is decorated with gilded mosaics that cover an area of 8000 sqm. Only one third of the mosaics is still the original work of art of the XIII century, as the rest was restored in the XVIII and XIX century.

The large central nave leads the sight of the visitors towards the altar that contains St. Mark’s remains. Behind the altar is the Pala d’Oro which is part of St. Mark’s treasure.

The decorated columns that support the ciborium over the altar were manufactured on paleochristian models in order to represent Venice heritage of the Christian empire after the conquest of Constantinople.


The Mosaics

The mosaics, inspired by Byzantine style, were mostly created in the beginning of the XII century. In the following centuries as the mosaics needed restoration, the Byzantine influence faded away more and more until it almost disappeared to be replaced by local Italian style. In the XVI century, following a fire that seriously damaged the ceiling, some great painters such as Paolo Uccello, Paolo Veronese, Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, were summoned to draw new sketches for the mosaicists, according to the new Italian style; the subjects, though, remained the same as the original. The mosaicists used gilded glass tesserae to create a shimmering effect. The central focus of the mosaics is located in the three major domes of the central nave: the Presbytery Dome, the Ascension Dome and the Pentecost Dome:


The Narrative

St. Mark's Venice Basilica narrativeThe Narrative of St. Mark's Basilica, from prophecy to salvation, is told in the three main domes:


In the Prophets' Dome, the mosaics show the Prophets who foretell the coming of Jesus Christ, the savior.


In the Ascension's Dome the mosaics tell the story of Christ: his coming, death, Resurrection and Ascension.


In the Pentecost dome the world of God is spread by the holy spirit, to the apostles and to the rest of the world so that everyone may be saved.


Presbytery Dome mosaics - The prophets Dome:

An image of Jesus is located at the center of the Prophets Dome: the Prophets stand around him and the Vergin Mary stands below him with her arms raised. The four Evangelists are depicted in the corners. 

The Prophets announce to Mary the Advent of Christ: Isaiah indicates a young man and says “the Vergin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”; David says “the fruit of thy body I will set upon thy throne”.

Jesus is depicted as a young man (he has no beard) because this image wants to convey the idea of Immanuel/Jesus before he manifests himself as Christ.



Ascension Dome mosaics:

This is the most important dome in the Basilica as it represent the central message of the whole church. In the middle of the starred sky, Jesus Christ sits on a rainbow supported by four Archangels. Below stand The Apostles, in the middle of a wood of beautiful trees, that represent the earthly world, with two angels and the Vergin Mary who, again, stands below him.

The images of 16 dancing young women represent the Virtues and the Beatitudes

In this mosaic Jesus is depicted as ad adult: he is risen from the dead and has fulfilled the prophesy described in the previous dome. This is a triumphant Christ who keeps the promise of salvation through him and is ready to admit the faithful to Heaven.


Pentecost Dome mosaics

The central image of this mosaic is a dove standing on a book that is suspended on a throne: the dove represents the Holy Spirit, that descend on the Apostles in the shape of fire; the throne represents the Father and the book represents the Word of God.

The silver beams that radiate from the throne to the Apostles heads is symbolic of the spreading of Jesus' teachings through the Holy Spirit.

At the base of the Domes are images that represent all the populations of the world that listen to the Christian message:

the Word of God is spread from the Holy Spirit through the Apostles and offers salvation to mankind.


The Baptistery

Baptistery Venice Cathedral BasilicaThe Baptistery was totally renovated in the XIV century by Doge Andrea Dandolo. It was originally accessible from the Piazzetta S. Marco: the “catechumens” would initially wait for their turn to be christened in the first room, the “Antibattistero” and watch the mosaics expressly addressed to them: the barrel vault is decorated with mosaics that portray the Prophets of the Old Testament and underneath are scenes from the life of Jesus and of John the Baptist.

Close to the door is the remarkable Byzantine-style mosaic “the Christening of Jesus in the Jordan river”.

The last scene from the life of John the Baptist is perhaps one of the most famous medieval Venetian mosaic of the Basilica: a seductive Salome is dancing in a red dress with feathered sleeves, holding a tray with the head of John’s the Baptist. “When Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. Thereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. And having been prompted by her mother, she said: Venice Baptistery mosaic“Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist” (Matthew 14, 1-2).

The catechumens would then enter the second room, the actual Baptistery to receive baptism.

The baptismal font was carved in marble and bronze by Jacopo Sansovino and is decorated with bas-relief that portray scenes from the life of John the Baptist and the four Evangelists.

On top is a statue of St. John the Baptist carved by Francesco Segala.

The mosaics of the dome over the font depicts Christ while inviting all the apostles to spread the word and administer baptism to the faithful.

The third room is the Presbytery: the altar is a red block of red granite that was brought here from Tyre in 1126, as, from behind such rock, according to legend, Jesus used to address the crowds.

The Byzantine-style mosaic of the Presbytery depicts the glory of Jesus among the nine angelic hierarchiesSalome mosaic Baptistery Venice

The Baptistery also hosts the tomb of Doge Andrea Dandolo who ordered the total renovation of the Baptistery in the XIII century. His Gothic style tomb was accomplished by De Sanctis: the decoration represents the Martyrdom of Saint Andrew and Saint John the Evangelist.

Dandolo was keen on renovating the Basilica but he also wanted the Baptistery to commemorate himself and his family: the statue of his body is laying on the coffin and he is also portrayed in the mosaics of the Crucifixtion as one of those offering.

Nowadays the Baptistery is only accessible from inside the Basilica and if you wish to visit it (Tue to Sat) you need to book in advance.


.The Pala d’Oro

The Pala d’Oro is a precious artifact installed in 1105 in the Presbyterium as the antependium of the altar; it is made of gold, silver, enamels and gems. It was expressly manufactured for the Basilica in the X century. The Pala was ordered by Doge Pietro Orseolo I in Costantinople around 976 and it was enriched and enlarged in the following centuries. It is a masterpiece of Byzantine craftsmanship and it includes 1300 pearls, 400 garnets, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 90 amethysts, 70 balas, 15 rubins, 4  topaz, and 2 cameos.

The enamels are laid in such a fashion as to form the shape of a cathedral; the embedded  cloisonné tiles convey the impression that the light penetrates into the Pala from the outside and is reflected out by the golden lamina. The play of lights was especially conceived as the light actually symbolize the elevation of mankind towards God.


.A Byzantine style mosaic, located in  the right nave of the Presbytery, depicts the smuggling of St. Mark’s relics from Alexandria of Egypt to Venice. 

The mosaic dates to XII century and shows two Venetian merchants Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello as they put the relics in a chest, and carry it while yelling the word “kanzir” (“pork meat” in Arabic); Muslin Customs Officers look disgusted as the Venetians get on the ship to leave Alexandria; the ship is then stormed by a tempest in the estuary and finally cheered as it arrives in Venice.