20 June 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
22, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice … first built as the private chapel of the Doge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Today is the Third Sunday after Trinity and Father’s Day. Later this morning I am planning to preach at Morning Prayer in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and to celebrate the Parish Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry. Later today, I hope to be present as Precentor at the installation of new members of the chapter in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare.

Last week my photographs were of seven cathedrals in Italy. This morning (20 June 2021), my photographs are from Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, introducing a week of photographs of churches in Venice.

The west façade of Saint Mark’s, above the main entrance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Venice, the most famous church in the city, and one of the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. Originally, Saint Mark’s was the chapel of the Doges of Venice, and it has been a cathedral only since 1807. Before that, the Patriarchs of Venice were seated at San Pietro di Castello.

Because of its opulent design, its mosaics and the wealth of its decoration, outside and inside, Saint Mark’s has become a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, and it is often known as the Chiesa d’Oro or Church of Gold.

The first Church of Saint Mark on this site beside the Doge’s Palace was built in 828-832, after merchants from Venice stole the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria. The present basilica was built from about 1063 and was completed in stages, and its basic shape includes a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features. The supposed but lost body of Saint Mark is said to have been rediscovered in a pillar by the Doge of Venice, Vitale Faliero, in 1094.

Although the basic structure of the building has not been altered much, its decoration has changed greatly over time. Inside, there is a dazzling display of gold ground mosaics on all the ceilings and upper walls. But there are spoils of classical and Byzantine buildings too, including the ninth-century Pala d’Oro from Constantinople, installed on the high altar in 1105, that were plundered or pilfered during the Crusades and other wars, including mosaics, columns, capitals and friezes.

In the 13th century, the church changed from being the private chapel of the Doge and became the state church and the venue for great state and public ceremonies, including the installation and burial of Doges.

The exterior of the west façade is divided into three registers: lower, upper and domes. In the lower register of the façade, five round-arched portals, enveloped by polychrome marble columns, open into the narthex through bronze-fashioned doors. The upper level of post-Renaissance mosaics in the lunettes of the lateral ogee arches depicts scenes from the Life of Christ, culminating in a 19th century replacement Last Judgment. Mosaics with scenes showing the history of the relics of Saint Mark fill the lunettes of the lateral portals, some of the mosaics dating from the 13th century.

Above the large central window of the façade, under Saint Mark, the Winged Lion who is his symbol and the symbol of Venice, holds a book quoting Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus (‘Peace to you Mark my Evangelist’).

In the centre of the balcony, four bronze horses face the square. They were installed about 1254, but date from Classical Antiquity – some accounts say they once adorned the Arch of Trajan.

The horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, but in 1204 Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. They were taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1797 but returned to Venice in 1815. Since the 1970s the originals have been kept in Saint Mark’s Museum and the horses on the façade today are bronze replicas.

The narthex or porch, dating from the 13th century, prepares the visitor for the gilded interior, with Old Testament scenes from Genesis and the lives of Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses. On the wall above and at the sides of the main doorway, the Four Evangelists and saints are depicted in 11th-century mosaics, the oldest in the building.

The porphyry statue of the Tetrarchs at the south-west corner, removed during restorations, represent the four co-emperors introduced in the third century. This statue too was taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Inside, Saint Mark’s is based on the design of the Emperor Constantine’s Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.

The lower levels of the walls and pillars are covered with polychrome marble slabs. The upper levels are covered with bright mosaics covering an area of about 8,000 square metres. The earliest surviving work, in the main porch, probably dates from around 1070. The main work on the interior mosaics was complete by the 1270s, but most of the mosaics were replaced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The large mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator, seated above the patron saints of Venice in the main apse, is a 15th-century recreation. The East dome over the high altar has a bust of Christ in the centre surrounded by prophets, the Virgin Mary and the Four Evangelists. The Ascension of Christ is depicted in the central dome and Pentecost in the west dome.

The marble floors of the basilica date from the 12th century.

In Saint Peter’s chapel in the left transept, the Madonna Nicopeia is the best-known Byzantine icon in Venice, also taken to Venice during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The treasury holds a collection of Byzantine objects looted from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and later in 1261.

The walls and domes inside Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 4: 35-41 (NRSVA):

35 When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Christ and the saints depicted in a dome in Saint Mark’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 June 2021, Trinity III) invites us to pray:

Eternal God,
Bless us with the spirit of unity.
May we embrace difference,
And work with each other,
To put our faith into action.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The apse and dome above the high altar in Saint Mark’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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