No trip to Venice is complete without paying a visit to the city’s largest church, St. Mark’s Basilica. Over the centuries, the monumental structure has become a symbol of the city’s proud history. Its enormous scale and polished details required the labor of thousands of men over a period spanning hundreds of years. Succeeding generations built upon the work of their predecessors to make the Basilica ever more impressive. As a result, the architecture and artworks found in and around it feature a combination of classic Venetian, Romanesque, and Byzantine influences, reflecting the prevailing trends at different periods. Thus, it can be said that the Basilica of San Marco is a testament to the changing cultural landscape frozen in stone.
One might wonder why the Venetians chose to honor the apostle with such a lavish tribute. The reason is that when St. Peter asked John, Mathew, Luke, and Mark to write their gospels, the latter went to Rome to finish his. The Venetians, wanting to free themselves from the control of the Byzantine Church, chose a patron saint closely associated with Rome.
St. Mark’s body was laid to rest at Alexandria, where it remained until 828 AD when merchants from Venice smuggled his body out of Egypt and into Italy. They were able to escape undetected by hiding the body inside a chest along with pork and vegetables. The success of their mission was greeted with jubilation in the city and the Basilica was then built to serve as the patron saint’s new tomb.
St. Mark’s Basilica takes many design cues from the older Church of the Apostles in Byzantium. Its construction proved to be a stroke of genius as it made Venice an important city during the Middle Ages for its religious, cultural, and economic significance. This was a time when the possession of great artifacts attracted interest far and wide, so people flocked to the church to pay homage to the famous saint. This influx of tourists also boosted trade and commerce, giving Venice wealth and thus, power. So entwined are St. Mark and the city that Venice adopted his symbol as its emblem: a sword-carrying winged lion.
The front of the church is hailed as a work of genius combining an astonishing array of structural and decorative pieces that feature scenes taken from biblical teachings. In one interesting relief, an aged man is seen with his hand in his mouth. It is believed to be modeled after the architect himself, punished after boasting that he can design a church that could surpass St. Mark’s Basilica in beauty and grandeur.
The church towers over its surroundings with its iconic domes of truly massive proportions. Despite their size, however, they fade seamlessly into the mosaics of gold. This visual effect was achieved by angling all the little squares of the dome differently to catch light in every possible direction.
These mosaics depict a myriad of gospel stories along an impressive 8,000-square meter area. These are stories that everyone knew by heart back in the Middle Ages.
Aside from the architecture itself, St. Mark’s Basilica has been enriched with additional adornments over the years thanks to wealthy patrons and the spoils of war. At the height of Venetian power, they were able to amass large quantities of gold, silver, and prized relics.
The centerpiece of the church is called Pala d’Or The Golden Pala. This can be found at the back of the altar, glittering in its splendor. It is the last remaining colossal piece of gothic jewelry from that age, the golden leaf embossed with 1927 unique gems. It was almost destroyed during Napoleon’s invasion if not for a quick thinking Venetian who hid the entire Golden Pala inside his residence until the soldiers left.
Lastly, there’s the statue of the four horses found on the Façade of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was taken from the Holy Land after a conquest and became an iconic representation of Venetian strength and independence. For a time, Napoleon was able to take it out of the city but it was restored with the fall of his empire.