Sunday, 20 April 2014


“If the Resurrection is resurrection from the dead, all hope and freedom are in spite of death.” - Paul Ricoeur

The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark (officially known in Italian as the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco and commonly known as Saint Mark's Basilica) is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, northern Italy. It is the most famous of the city's churches and one of the best-known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. It lies at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco, adjacent and connected to the Doge's Palace. Originally it was the chapel of the Doge, and has only been the city's cathedral since 1807, when it became the seat of the Patriarch of Venice, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, formerly at San Pietro di Castello. For its opulent design, gold ground mosaics, and its status as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, from the 11th century on the building has been known by the nickname Chiesa d'Oro (Church of gold).

The upper levels of the interior are completely covered with bright mosaics covering an area of about 8000 square metres. Most of these mosaics use the traditional background of gold glass tesserae, creating the shimmering overall effect. Unfortunately, the Doge retained a workshop of mosaicists until the late 18th century, and in the 19th century contracted a mosaic workshop run by the Salviati glassmaking firm, and the majority of the medieval mosaics have been “restored” by removing and resetting, usually with a considerable loss of quality, so that only about one-third of the mosaic surface can be regarded as original.

The earliest surviving work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral. They are in a fairly pure Byzantine style but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence reflecting the latest style of the capital was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting a change from a colonial to a local art. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process or how it was affected by politics.

The mosaics in the interior recount the events of the New Testament, with the great message of Christian salvation. The mosaics in the atrium, carried out afterwards, during the 13th century, are a meditation on the Old Testament, in particular the books of Genesis and Exodus, and are well located as precursor of and preparation for the interior. Interwoven with this main plan one identifies many others: The story of the Virgin, the martyrdoms of St. Peter and St. Clement, the events of St. John the Evangelist's life and those of John the Baptist and St. Isidore, the great pantheon of saints worshipped by the Venetians and, most important of all, the cycles with the legend of St. Mark. The gold background of the mosaics does not only give unity to the mosaics themselves but, in accordance with the oriental conception, has a precise symbolic value as the colour of the Divine, the image of that light which, for the theologians and Fathers of the mediaeval church, was God himself.

In the centre of the basilica, at the intersection with the transept, the dome celebrates the concluding mystery of the life of Jesus: His Resurrection and Ascension to heaven. The decoration of the Ascension cupola, dating to the second half of the 12th century, is the mosaic masterpiece of St. Mark's and the heart of the church's spiritual message. It is considered to be the best mosaic expression in the whole church for structure, quality and preservation.  The Greek master who, with his assistants, created this cycle has been defined as the “agitato style” master. There could be no more suitable definition of this mosaicist who, in the creation of these scenes of the Death, Resurrection and Ascent, expresses all the dramatic tension and renewal of humanity and the universe. He manipulates the line in a myriad of curves that delineate the faces and create highly complicated folds that wind in broad spirals, spreading out into elegant fan-shaped drapery and extending in an extremely harmonious fluttering that recalls Hellenic solutions. (For another post on Byzantine mosaic, see here).

Above is the mosaic of the Resurrection, quite apt for Easter Sunday. I hope you have had a peaceful Easter/ Pascha/ Passover with your loved ones.

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