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St Mark's Church

[Venice - First Impressions]  [The Story Of Venice]  [The Stones Of Venice]  [The Painters Of Venice]  [The Heart Of Venice]  [St Mark's Church]  [The Doges' Palace]  [The Grand Canal]  [Some Venetian Churches]  [Venetian Islands]  [More Articles About Venice] 

( Originally Published Mid-1900's )

In all Christendom there is no more lovable church than St Mark's. The casual visitor to the great Gothic cathedrals of the North is impressed and overawed, but St Mark's is the friendliest of churches, and puts you at your ease the moment that you cross its threshold. The very mosaics are reassuring. Noah, in an advanced state of intoxication, greets you as you enter the atrium, and in a moment the barriers break down. You are no longer in a foreign church in a foreign town; you are back again in your nursery; you are transported to a period of your life when Noah was as real a person to you as your own father.

St Mark's is of the East, but of an East which has more kinship with our own grey northern Gothic than with Moslem mosques, for the Orient which sent its marbles to enrich St Mark's was a Christian East, an East from which the Puritanism of the Turk had not expelled the colour of Catholicism.

Of St Mark's Mr Max Beerbohm writes: Well, then, for me the church had hardly the effect of a building ; of a garden, rather ; an Eastern garden that had been by some Christian miracle petrified just when the flowers were fading, so that its beauty should last for ever to the glory of Christ, and of S. Mark. But Mohammed had walked there, and his spirit haunts it yet.

No, St Mark's is lovable precisely because Mohammed has never walked between its porphyry columns. The colour of St Mark's may recall Eastern gardens, but it owes no homage to that Eastern faith which swept like a desert wind over Byzantium.Byzantium fell, and beauty withered at the touch of that Eastern Puritanism which smothered the glories of Santa Sophia beneath layer after layer of whitewash. The Puritan fury, which in our own island overturned the statues and shattered stained glass to fragments, was first cousin to that drab, grey Eastern creed of which Mohammed was the prophet.

St Mark's is full of Byzantine echoes. Many of the capitals and columns belong to the same family as the Byzantine columns of Santa Sophia, but it is not the ghost of Mohammed who walks between the pillars of St Mark's, but of those who were kings in Byzantium when the Golden Horn was the eastern outpost of Christendom, not the western outpost of Allah.

The body was housed in the Ducal Palace until the church of St Mark's, which was begun in 828, was ready to receive it. This wooden church was burnt down in 976, and a new one was built in the eleventh century. In 1094 the new church was ready for consecration, but, alas, the saint's body had been lost in the fire, and the great church of St Mark's was an empty shrine.

This was no light affliction, not only to the pious Doge, but to all the citizens and people; so that at last, moved by confidence in the Divine mercy, they determined to implore, with prayer and fasting, the manifestation of so great a treasure, which did not now depend upon any human effort. A general fast being therefore proclaimed, and a solemn procession appointed for the 25th day of June, while the people assembled in the church interceded with God in fervent prayer for the desired boon, they beheld, with as much amazement as joy, a slight shaking in the marbles of a pillar (near the place where the altar of the Cross is now), which presently falling to the earth, exposed to the view of the rejoicing people the chest of bronze in which the body of the Evangelist was laid.

This legend is recorded in a mosaic which you will find in the north transept, a mosaic which was executed not long after the events which it portrays.

St Mark's is built of brick, but the brick was never intended to show. It was the canvas which generation after generation of architects and mosaicists en riched until every square yard had been covered.The walls glow with mosaics, with marbles, and with every variety of cut and coloured stone. The brick substratum is veneered with marble from Greece, with alabaster from Arabia, and with porphyries from Egypt. Some of the finest effects are produced by slicing up old columns and reversing the grain, thus producing a symmetrical figure on the same principle as blotting a piece of paper and then folding it along the line through the blot.

St Mark's is a perfect example of 'encrusted architecture.' The brick walls are the canvas, and the jasper and alabaster the paint. Alabaster may be regarded, as Ruskin remarks, "as a cake of very hard colour, of which a certain portion is to be ground down or cut off, to paint the wall with."

An eye for colour is no less a gift than an ear for music, but whereas the unmusical seldom cherish any illusions about themselves, many people go through life without discovering that they have no eye for colour. St Mark's is a criterion of the colour sense, and to those who lack this sense St Mark's will probably not appeal.

"For it is," as Ruskin remarks,on its value as a piece of perfect and unchangeable colouring, that the claims of this edifice to our respect are finally rested; and a deaf man might as well pretend to pronounce judgment on the merits of a full orchestra, as an architect trained in the composition of form only, to discern the beauty of St Mark's. It possesses the charm of colour in common with the greater part of the architecture, as well as of the manufacture, of the East ; but the Venetians deserve especial note as the only European people who appear to have sympathized to the full with the great instinct of the Eastern races. They indeed were compelled to bring artists from Constantinople to design the mosaics of the vaults of St Mark's, and to group the colour of its porches ; but they rapidly took up and developed, under more masculine conditions, the system of which the Greeks had shown them the example : while the burghers and barons of the North were building their dark streets and grisly castles of oak and sandstone, the merchants of Venice were covering their palaces with porphyry and gold ; and at last, when her mighty painters had created for her a colour more priceless than gold or porphyry, even this, the richest of her treasures, she lavished upon walls whose foundations were beaten by the sea : and the strong tide, as it runs beneath the Rialto, is reddened to this day by the reflection of the frescoes of Giorgione.

One of the most surprising things about St Mark's is the impression of unity which the building produces, in spite of the fact that it is a museum of Eastern loot. According to the ancient laws of Venice, every merchant trading in the East was required to bring back material for the decoration of the church, nor could a successful general or admiral return from an Eastern campaign without some offering for St Mark's.And consequently the front of St Mark's became rather a shrine at which to dedicate the splendour of miscellaneous spoil, than the organized expression of any fixed architectural law or religious emotion.

Not one of the hundreds of columns and capitals within or without the church was originally built or constructed for St Mark's. Indeed, some of the pillars fulfil no structural function, but are merely interposed for ornament between other pillars which are doing the real work of carrying the structure. Yet though the materials for St Mark's were brought together magpie fashion, the building as a whole has acquired throughout the centuries a unity and a personality of its own.

Among the many objects of great antiquity with which the church is adorned, internally and externally, the four horses over the central porch are the most famous. They were fashioned in a Grecian workshop, and made their first bow to the public from the summit of an arch in imperial Rome.Nero wrote an ode to them, and Theodosius claimed them for the Empire of the East. The four horses started on their travels, left Rome, and reached Byzantium, where they stayed for 80o years. The Venetians came, sacked Constantinople, and cast covetous eyes on the four horses, with the result that they travelled westward. They were hoisted up on to the parapet of St Mark's, and here they stayed while Venice rose and fell. The last Doge faded from the Ducal Palace, the Corsican stalked into the Piazza, glanced up at the facade of St Mark's, and decided that the horses would look well in Paris.And so over the Alps they went in a snowstorm, and shivered exceedingly. But the Corsican fell, just as Venice had fallen, and the Austrian Emperor persuaded himself that his unwilling subjects, the Venetians, would perhaps view him with less disfavour if he restored their beloved horses. So once again the horses started on their travels, and this time they came east. The Emperor ordained that a great festa should be celebrated to welcome their return. The Venetian nobility were invited to be present while the horses were hoisted once again into their old position. But the band played to an empty Piazza, for the Venetians had boycotted the entertainment, and the Emperor and the four horses had the show to themselves.

The cannons fired, and the much-travelled horses that had gone east to Constantinople and west to Paris resumed their old position on the parapet of St Mark's.

Of the five mosaics on the western facade only one, the mosaic on the extreme left, repays study. The others are the work of men who had no respect for the limitations of the material in which they worked.

Mosaics have very definite limitations. "When representing the human face or the human figure with little cubes of glass," writes Sir Charles J. Holmes,

it is impossible to attempt niceties of modelling or light and shade. The artist is thus immediately deprived of the resources by which he can render subtle character in a portrait, or any complex movement. Large contours and masses, and the simplest and most readily comprehended gestures are alone within his power. But these limitations once granted, the mosaic worker has his reward. Not only can he enrich these simplified figures with a splendour of colour ttainable in no other medium, but he can endow them with the supernatural grandeur of celestial beings, by setting them against a background of shimmering gold or deep sapphire blue. The power of Byzantine mosaic to satisfy man's spiritual instincts is attested by the fact that the style prevailed, both in Italy and in the land of its origin, for a thousand years, and has survived with no essential change in Russian devotional painting up to our time.

The mosaic on the extreme left of the west facade represents St Mark's as it was before the Gothic pinnacle had been added to this facade. The mosaic is nearly intact, but the three figures on the right are restorations in which, as Ruskin remarks,all the faults of the old work are caricatured and all its beauties lost ; so that the faces which in the old figures are grave or sweet are in these three new ones as of staring dolls.

The greater part of this mosaic is, however, fortunately unaffected by the restorer's hand, and is a fine example of thirteenth-century work. When you go to the Accademia study carefully Bellini's great picture of the procession passing in front of St Mark's, a picture which conveys some faint idea of the five mosaics in the lunette, mosaics of which only one survives today. The remaining four were destroyed by the vandals of the Renaissance, who were not content to cover vacant spaces with their vacuous work, but tore down the beautiful old mosaics to make way for the degraded examples of the new school.

The Zuccati were the leaders of the sixteenth-century mosaicists, and their work was much admired by Vasari when he visited Venice. He declared that their mosaics looked like oil-paintings, and that some of their smaller subjects resembled miniatures. Vasari did not realize that he could hardly have passed a more damning verdict on their work, for the great artist exploits to the full the resources of the medium in which he works, and does not seek to imitate in one medium the effects which are proper to another.

It is consoling to reflect that the debased art of the Zuccati aroused some protests among their contemporaries. The Zuccati were denounced to the Procurators on the grounds that they had used the methods of oil painting to produce certain of their mosaic effects. The mosaics of the Apocalypse, which can be seen over the vaulting beyond the west dome and over the west gallery in St Mark's, and, in particular, the angels of the Seven Churches in the fourth compartment were singled out for attack. A commission, perhaps unique in history in so far as it included no less than three men of outstanding genius Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese was appointed to examine the mosaics in question, with the result that the Zuccati, in spite of Titian's support, were condemned to reset at their own cost a large part of the mosaic of which the commission disapproved.

The Zuccati, like so many other contemporary painters, were so much intrigued by the newly discovered laws of aerial perspective that they were in danger of subordinating everything to the science of representing three dimensions on a two dimensional surface." How charming a thing is this perspective! " Paolo Uccello used to remark to his wife." Oh, if I could only get you to understand the delights of it! " Mosaicists like the Zuccati despised the artistic restraint of the old school. They tried to show their cleverness by proving their mastery of aerial rspective and by aiming at purely pictorial effects.

"But in truth," as Mr Okey remarks,

the goffa maniera of the earlier workers so contemptuously referred to by Vasari, was the result of a profound science and an admirable artistic appreciation of the limitations of their art ; their rich and beautiful polychromatic effects were due, not to an artless, but to an artful, disposition of the angles of the cubes, and to a conscious sobriety in the use of material ; the futile attempt of the sixteenth-century masters to imitate the painter's art was a servile act and the beginning of the decadence of mosaic.

The carvings on the central door repay careful study. They have been described in detail by Ruskin in St Mark's Rest.

There is a glorious Gothic doorway on the north wall. On the south wall there is a Madonna, before whom two lamps burn all night in expiation of the unjust execution by the Council of Ten in 1611 of an innocent youth.The short porphyry column is called the Pietra del Bando. It was from this column that the laws were read to the Venetian people. The beautiful and highly decorated door-posts on the south side of St Mark's were taken from the church of St Sabbas, Saint-Jean d'Acre, in 1256.

And now let us pass through the western porch into the atrium, at the entrance of which we see the three porphyry slabs which mark the traditional spot where Barb arossa sued for pardon from the Pope. Do not forget to examine the beautiful shafts and columns of the atrium, famous for the exquisite beauty of their carving.

The mosaics in the atrium begin with the Creation. The catechumen, as the convert to Christianity was called while he was under instruction and awaiting baptism, was not allowed to pass beyond the atrium until he had been baptized. It was thought right that he should first be instructed in the Old Testament history. In those days when Bibles were few and precious, and when the unlettered formed the vast majority of the population, the mosaics were the Bible of the poor.In these days of cheap printing it is difficult to realize that the 40,000 square feet of mosaics in St Mark's provided the Venetians with their nearest approach to literature and with an unending source of interesting study.On the dome on the right as we enter we find the mosaics which describe the creation of the world.These mosaics are followed by the story of Adam and Eve."On the sides," writes Mr Lucas, "is the story of Cain and Abel carried back to an earlier point than we are accustomed to see it," a remark the delicate humour of which will be appreciated by those who remember the mosaic to which Mr Lucas is referring.Then comes the story of Noah, the Tower of Babel, and the building of the Ark.Farther down Noah is seen in an advanced stage of intoxication.One remembers the reassuring comment of the Douay Bible: "Drunk, in the opinion of the early fathers, without sin, for Noah knew not the strength of the wine." Other mosaics tell the story of the Patriarchs Abraham, Joseph, and Noah.

The catechumen, after being baptized, was permitted to enter the church, and saw over its main entrance, "on looking back, a mosaic of Christ enthroned."

"On looking back."I wonder if any catechumen did look back, for the view which opens out before one as one enters is overwhelming in its beauty. Ruskin has described St Mark's as an illuminated missal in mosaic, but whereas a missal only exhibits two pages at a time, the walls of St Mark's are plastered with an endless series of pages from this mosaic missal.The limits of my space veto any attempt to describe the mosaics in detail.I refer the reader to Ruskin or to the excellent and detailed description in Mr Okey's Venice in the "Mediaeval Towns" series.

As we move up the nave we notice the two magnificent pulpits to the left and right of the screen in front of the approach to the high altar.It was from the pulpit on the left that Enrico Dandolo and other great Doges addressed the people in times of national crisis.

The panelling on the choir itself is Renaissance, and the reliefs in bronze are by Sansovino.

The Pala d'Oro forms a reredos to the altar. It is uncovered at Easter, and is shown on weekdays for a small fee. This magnificent example of Byzantine work weighs some thirty pounds. The Pala d'Oro was made in Constantinople in 1105, and was set with 1200 pearls and with 1200 other precious stones, most of which were looted by the French in 1797, and have since been replaced by rather indifferent modern stones.

The second altar, behind the high altar, is adorned with alabaster pillars, two of which, according to tradition, once stood in Solomon's temple. When the custodian lights a candle behind the pillar it glows with a soft golden transparency. The fine reliefs on the bronze sacristy doors are by Sansovino.

The treasury, which contains many objects of interest, and the sacristy should be visited. The baptistery is notable for the beautiful Gothic mural tomb of the great Doge Andrea Dandolo and for the mosaic story of John the Baptist.The block of granite on the high altar comes from Mount Tabor.

For a small fee you can reach the upper galleries of St Mark's, by way of a doorway on the left of the principal portal. One is seldom disturbed in these galleries, which provide an ideal retreat for those who wish to spend a quiet hour absorbing the atmosphere of St Mark's. Let me end as I began. Read and reread Ruskin, and dedicate at least one half-hour in every day that you spend in Venice to "this fair church of Monsignor S. Marco."

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