Cathedrals: St. Mark’s

This week’s cathedral brings us to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. The closest I’ve ever been to Venice, unfortunately, is watching that heist movie The Italian Job. Someday, God willing, I’ll get a closer look.

The basilica was completed in 1096, back when the city was the major commercial and military power of the eastern Mediterranean. Considering what it looks like now, its origins seem pretty humble, probably looking something like this:

As you can see below, the original brick has been covered over and nearly every part of the exterior was, over time, given an upgrade:

Let’s head inside. Here’s a view from just under the central entrance (there’s St. Mark at the high point):

The interior reflects the enormous wealth of Venice during its heyday, and features eight thousand square meters of mosaics.

The floor:

photo: Tony Hisgett on Flickr

The ceiling:

That’s a lot of gold. The cathedral is stuffed with treasures and works of art, a lot of it, unfortunately, stolen from the Eastern churches during the Crusades. Venice was the major port city for the crusader armies, and they were particularly indiscriminate in their looting of Constantinople, even sacking last week’s feature, the Hagia Sophia, in 1204. This event sealed the deal on the East-West schism and led directly to the fall of the Byzantine empire to the Ottomans.

We should probably put all that stuff back where we found it, but for now it remains at St. Mark’s.

On a lighter note, the cathedral is home to the relics of St. Mark, not stolen but smuggled out of Alexandria with the help of a few Greek monks in 828. According to legend:

The body of Saint Mark was taken out of the sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud, the relic being substituted by another and less eminent saint.  It was then placed in a chest and taken on board the Venetian ship, the merchants first ensuring that the saint’s remains were covered by a layer of pork and cabbage.  When the Muslim officials asked to inspect the chest, they cried out ‘Kanzir, kanzir’ (Oh horror) at the sight and smell of the pork. . . .  Thus the evangelist was safely conveyed to Venice, but not before a number of miracles eased his passage across the Mediterranean.

So, St. Mark was smuggled out of Egypt in a barrel of bacon grease. Here’s his resting place behind the high altar:

This mosaic, part of a sequence telling the story of Noah’s Ark, seems an appropriate conclusion.

The rising tide represents the biggest threat to St. Mark’s cathedral so far. Last year Venice saw its highest watermark in 50 years, and with no end in sight to a warming climate and melting ice caps, events like this one below are only becoming more frequent.

If things continue, St. Mark might need to be shipped away again soon, perhaps back to Alexandria. And why not return to the Eastern churches some of their relics and icons while we’re at it?

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