2018-04-04 / Features

In Byzantium’s Footsteps: The Coming of St. Mark to Venice

By Catherine Tsounis

Transfer of St. Mark in Procession to the Basilica. All Photos Despina Siolas, M.D./Ph.D.Transfer of St. Mark in Procession to the Basilica. All Photos Despina Siolas, M.D./Ph.D.Every city and Christian empire had a saint as their symbol. Venice on its road to becoming a republic dominating the East and West needed a saint. Where were they to go? To the East, the center of the Byzantine Empire, that was conquered and now part of the Moslem lands. Moses Viero, our guide of San Mark’s Basilica, unfolded an incredible story of intrigue and adventure on a pleasant day in late autumn Venice.

San Marco Square is notorious for pick pockets. We were all vigilant. Nothing happened. I dropped my sweater and a member of guide Viero’s staff found and returned it. Walking numerous bridges and having to pay 31/2 euros per person to sit was our main problem in Venice.

“I have spent a large part of my life studying in the library of San Marco,” he said. “The transportation of St. Mark’s remains from Egypt is an incredible story. St. Mark was an evangelist from Jerusalem. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great, built the city. The Library of Alexandria, the depository of the Ancient world’s learning.”

St. Mark was the oldest of the evangelists. He joined St. Peter in Rome. St. mark’s gospel St. Theodore was the patron saint of Venice before the relics of Saint Mark.
St. Theodore was the patron saint of Venice before the relics of Saint Mark. was written in Rome after 50 A.D. at the request of Peter or the Christian community, who wished to retain a record of Peter’s preaching. Mark returned to Alexandria where he was martyred on April 25, 68 A.D.

It is difficult for a 2018 person to understand this concept of patron saints, while statues of our past are being torn down because of the 21st century view of political correctness. St Theodore was the patron saint of Venice before the relics of Saint Mark were (according to tradition) brought to the city in 828. The original chapel of the Doge was dedicated to St Theodore, though, after the transfer of the relics of St Mark, it was superseded by the church of St Mark.”1          

There were 15 churches in Constantinople dedicated to St Theodore, who was a Greek warrior saint like Sts. George and Demetrios, especially venerated by the Eastern Orthodox church. Professor Father Nicola Madaro of St. San Giorgio dei (“Saint George of the Greeks”) Church in Castello, said “Venice originally had been a subject city of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire). The Venetians saw St Theodore as a symbol of their subjection to Constantinople. The adoption of St Mark as their patron helped to establish their independence.”

Abduction of St. Mark’s relics.

Abduction of St. Mark’s relics. “Pizzetta di San Marco (San Marco Square) marked by two large granite columns carrying symbols of the two patron saints of Venice. The first is Saint Theodore, who was the patron of the city before St Mark, holding a spear and with a crocodile to represent the dragon which he was said to have slain. This is made up of parts of antique statues and is a copy (the original is kept in the Doge's Palace). The second (eastern) column has a creature representing a winged lion — the Lion of Venice — which is the symbol of St Mark. This has a long history, probably starting as a winged lion-griffin on a monument to the god Sandon at Tarsus in Cilicia (Southern Turkey) about 300 BC. The columns are now thought to have been erected about 1268.”2

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the legend of St. Mark’s peaching in the Venice lagoon was formulated in Aquileia, a trading town on the Mediterranean whose first Christian Bishop Ermagora, was a disciple of St. Mark. Two Venetian merchants Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello travelled to Alexandria on business in 828 A.D. They went to venerate the saint’s relics in he church dedicated to him. The monk Staurazio and priest Teodoro, church custodians, said the church had been profaned by the Muslims, who were plundering Christian churches to build mosques. The two merchants removed the remains of St. Mark in baskets of pork and vegetables. The Arabs saw the pork, which is prohibited their religion’s diet laws, and fled. After a voyage full of dangers, they were received by Dodge Giustiniano.3 The Venetians were cunning and plundered the Byzantine Empire during the Crusades with one purpose: become the greatest Maritime Republic. They succeeded. Now they had a world class saint to catapult them to greatness. The influence of Greek and the Byzantine empire is stamped throughout the African continent from Egypt, the Nubian Desert, Ethiopia to Axum.5

The mosaics are portrayed in the exterior and interior of St. Mark’s cathedral. During the construction of the third basilica, the saint’s remains had been so well hidden, no one knew where to find them. In 1094, Doge Vitale Falier, patriarch and population prayed, and the relics reappeared inside a pillar. Religious and civil values were in the cult of St. Mark in Venice. The city is identified in history with the symbol of the winged lion, that symbolizes the image of St. Mark the Evangelist. Venice’s banner, churches, palaces, ships and lands it conquered were marked with the lion’s symbol.

How was this possible? “The Venetians came from Aquileia,” said our Aquileia guide St. Theodore and St. Mark’s symbols in San Marco Square.
St. Theodore and St. Mark’s symbols in San Marco Square. Giovanna Strigher Di Robilant. “Their people have a tragic history. The Aquileians had a Roman civilization with theaters, forums and wealthy farmland. They had no walls. They were Romans. They never thought anyone would invade them. Invade they did. The Lombards destroyed, looted, raped and destroyed. The remaining population found refuge in the swamps of Venice.” People who were wealthy, became destitute or refugees. They had a drive to rebuild the affluent life they ancestors enjoyed. This motivating factor can explain the Venetian drive to succeed with business cunning. Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli in “The Prince” said “So if a leader does what it takes to win power and keep it, his methods will always be reckoned honorable and widely praised.”

St. Mark’s symbol of winged lion.St. Mark’s symbol of winged lion.Moses Viero is an authorized Venetian guide at www.moseviero.it and info@moseviero.it, Arrival of St. Mark’s body in Venice. Arrival of St. Mark’s body in Venice. phone 349/7142372. He comes from an Italian, Catholic background. He presented the view on the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire that is in Greek sources. In simple terms: Mr. Viero said the truth, not what is politically correct. He has spent many hours researching in the Old Library on the west side of the Pizzetta facing the Palazzo Ducale in San Marco Square. Dr. Despina Siolas amazement of Viero’s description of San Mark’s Cathedral as “Byzantine and, a Greek Orthodox Church” can not be explained. We were lucky that we picked Viero’s tour from TripAdvisor and got a true explanation of the Byzantine influence in Venice. We were fortunate to have authorized Aquileia guide Giovanna Strigher Di Robilant at friulguide@libero.it who showed us the Roman and Christian roots of the Venetian nation.


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