2018-01-03 / Features

Following Byzantine Footsteps: San Marco Basilica and Byzantium

By Catherine Tsounis

“History is written by the victors.” -  Winston Churchill

San Marco Basilica. Photo Despina SiolasSan Marco Basilica. Photo Despina Siolas“This is a Catholic Church. But it is unlike any Catholic church you will see again. In reality. It is a Greek Orthodox Church. The iconostasis (altar) is Greek Orthodox. San Marco Basilica is a Greek Orthodox Church. The Venetians knew the Eastern World. The Basilica is modeled after a Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople (Istanbul),” explained our guide Mose Viero on a life changing visit, October 15, 2017. We were speechless. Our astonished faces showed by Mose’s lack of political correctness. HE SAID THE TRUTH. When a tourist goes to Venice, take a tour with Mose. Your outlook on Byzantine civilization will never be the same again.

“San Marco Basilica was begun in 828 to house the remains of St. Mark brought from San Marco Basilica interior.San Marco Basilica interior.Alexandria, Mose explained. St. Mark replaced St. Theodore as the patron saint of Venice. The winged lion became the official symbol of the Venetian Republic. San Marco Basilica, built beside the Doge’s (Duke’s)Palace was his chapel. The plan is a Greek cross, and the building is surmounted by five domes. The design is distinctly Byzantine, and it is likely that both Byzantine and Italian architects and craftsmen were employed in the construction and decoration. Over the centuries, additions of sculpture, mosaics, and ceremonial objects have increased the church’s richness.1 I was intrigued with the fact that the Basilica was a reproduction of a Constantinople Church. When I returned to New York, I researched this fact.

“The Holy Apostles was one of the earliest foundations of Constantinople. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, the first structure—a mausoleum destined to house Constantine’s own mortal remains—was completed by the time of the emperor’s death in 337. As the same source records, it was originally conceived as twelve cenotaphs or markers raised in memory of the Apostles surrounding the emperor’s sarcophagus, an arrangement reminiscent not only of the Tomb of Christ set within the Anastasis Rotunda in Jerusalem, but also, according to a now lost Coptic source by a certain Chaeremon, possibly a member of the Museum in Alexandria in ca. 80 AD, of the setting of Alexander the Great’s burial.”2
Who would think Alexander the Great’s burial was similar! The Dumbarton Oaks Collection at Harvard is known in the world for its scholarship. San Marco’s Basilica is an inheritor of this remarkable legacy.

View from San Marco’s Basilica.
View from San Marco’s Basilica. Interest in the architectural complex continued into the middle Byzantine period (ninth–twelfth centuries), when it found reflections in the literary space of visually evocative rhetorical descriptions (ekphraseis), which describe the forms of the church and elaborate on the symbolic meanings associated with it. It is by way of these texts, notably the tenth-century poem of Constantine the Rhodian and the early thirteenth-century description of Nicholas Mesarites, that the image of the Holy Apostles has resisted oblivion, despite its destruction during the second half of the fifteenth century, when it was replaced by the Fatih Camii, a mosque dedicated to the conqueror of the Byzantine capital, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II.

Across the centuries, the Holy Apostles remained influential, both as an architectural paradigm and an ideological referent. Morphologically related to it is the ninth-century church of St. Andrew at Peristera (near Thessalonike) and the tenth- or eleventh-century Ala Kilise in Cappadocia. Both reflect the Constantinopolitan prototype in their cruciform plan topped by five domes.

Moreover, the splendid forms of the church of the Holy Apostles found echoes in sumptuous  architectural copies, such as the basilica of San Marco in Venice, an example of multilayered appropriation and reinterpretation of the Constantinopolitan model both at the level of architectural typology and symbolic meaning. An apostolic shrine, housing the remains of St. Mark, the building also reflected Venice’s growing political and commercial competition with the Byzantine capital. A further but less thoroughly investigated example of appropriation is the twelfth-century cathedral of Cefalù, envisaged by Roger II (r. 1130–1154) to serve both as a church for the newly founded archbishopric and as a dynastic mausoleum. Here, the church of the Holy Apostles became a powerful symbol in the definition of the ecclesiastical identity of the Norman reign of Sicily…

This selective list of examples demonstrates how the church of the Holy Apostles became a powerful symbol, persisting across space and time, and serving the purposes of different historical and institutional contexts.3

In “View of the mosaic decoration of the Sanctuary, Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily”, the decoration of the apse’s decoration reproduces the iconographic layout of the central Guide Mose Viero.Guide Mose Viero.dome of the Holy Apostles, as reconstructed by three scholars. In the apsidal conch is the bust of the Christ Pantokrator and, below him, his heavenly court, composed of the Virgin, the Archangel, and the Apostles.”4  I saw Cefalu with Prof. Gaetano Cipolla and Dr. Florence Russo in an “Arba Sicula 2008 tour”. My San Marco Basilica and Cefalu tours showed me replicas of the mausoleum of Byzantine emperors, the Holy Apostles Cathedral of Constantinople, destroyed by the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

When visiting St. Mark’s Basilica, he/she must view it in its historical time period, not our own. “The Byzantines never, ever, ever, ever, ever called themselves Byzantines. They called themselves Romans up to the end in the 15th century. If you go to Istanbul today, the Patriarchate is in a neighborhood called the ‘Romans’, the Rum. It is a made-up name by German historians of 19th century who applied this term to differentiate the Christian Roman Empire with the Pagan Roman Empire,” explained Late Roman historian George Demacopoulos.5

Cefalu’s Byzantine iconography. Photo by Catherine TsounisCefalu’s Byzantine iconography. Photo by Catherine Tsounis“The empire was not known as Byzantine,” said Byzantinologos Professor Rev. Nicolas Madaro. “It was the Roman Empire. There was only one Roman Emperor acknowledged in the West. He was not called the Byzantine Emperor. In 1439, John Palaeologus came to Florence. He was respected as the ‘Emperor of the Romans’. The Doge (Duke) of Venice was part of the Roman Empire. Venice’s support of the Angeli Emperor and his non-payment led to the Fall of Constantinople in 1204 to Venice and the 4th Crusade. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, there was nothing left. The 1204 Fourth Crusade took all the treasures. The Crusades weakened Constantinople. The City might have still been around if the Crusades did not weaken her. Byzantium, the term was created by the West. The persons considered themselves Romans.”

Look at the truth. The world needed a strong Byzantium. Without Byzantium, the world was worse off. In 2017, I have a different view of this period. We are lucky to be able to see Byzantium’s glory at San Marco’s Basilica. Byzantine, Roman, Muslim, ancient treasures and Christian churches are being destroyed by war, in the former area of the Byzantine Empire. The modern tourist can see a replica of the Holy Apostles Church, the Imperial Polyándreion (imperial cemetery), by visiting St. Mark’s Cathedral. “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality,” Nikos Kazantzakis.
1.      https://www.britannica.com/topic/San-Marco-Basilica
2.      https://www.doaks.org/resources/online-exhibits/holy-apostles/the-holy-apostles
3.      https://www.doaks.org/resources/online-exhibits/holy-apostles/the-holy-apostles
4.                                               https://www.doaks.org/resources/online-exhibits/holy-apostles/the-holy-apostles/cefalu
5.      http://podbay.fm/show/1061453162/e/1501081620?autostart=1 - Was Byzantine Christianity the Normative Orthodox experience?: Part 1

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