Venice Explorer: St Mark’s Basilica

In our last adventure we toured St. Mark’s Square (The Piazza) and today we’re going to step into the wonders of St. Mark’s Basilica

One of the crown jewels of Europe, St. Mark’s Basilica defies words. It is a mix of ornate and graceful architectural styles from the Byzantine to Gothic. The Basilica is unlike any other church in the world – unique and breathtaking…spectacular, but not ostentatious.

Truthfully pictures and words will ultimately fall short of giving St. Mark’s it’s due – which is why you need to plan for your own Venetian adventure. Seeing St. Mark’s in person for me was a life changing experience and I will never forget it.

In today’s blog tour we’ll start off with the history of St. Mark’s before highlighting it’s awe inspiring architecture, relics and treasures.


There has been a church in the area of St. Mark’s since early in Venetian history. The original St. Mark’s was built in 828 AD (completed in 832 AD) after the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was brought to Venice.

A Stolen Saint?

After his martyrdom in 68 AD, St. Mark was buried in Alexandria Egypt, where he remained until The Venetians stole his body to move it to Venice.

Their reasoning? There was a legend (apocryphal – not in scripture) that St. Mark had visited Venice during his evangelizing and found refuge from a storm in Venice, which made him an ideal Patron Saint for the city.

Also in the 800s, Egypt was under Muslim rule and Christian martyr remains weren’t a priority (at least that was the viewpoint of the Venetians in 828 AD) The idea was to ‘steal’ the body in order to honor St. Mark with a new resting place in his own church in Venice.

In order to get the body past the Egyptian guards, the Venetians put it in layers or pork in barrels. They knew Muslim’s wouldn’t touch the pork.

It’s a bit bizarre, but apparently St. Mark didn’t mind the move.

  • According to legend, on the return trip to Venice, the graverobbers encountered a terrible storm and nearly drowned (with the body), but St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved and the merchant graverobbers said they owed their safety to the miracle.

The first St. Mark’s opened in 832, but burned down in 976 as part of a rebellion

The present day structure was consecrated on October 8th 1094 by Vitale Falier. It continue to grow in size and embellishment over the years.

Quick Facts about the Church’s Art and Architecture:

  • Originally modeled after The Church of the Holy Apostles and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, but truly is unlike any other church in the world.
  • It is a Greek Cross Church layout (nave and transept are equal in length)
  • It is not the oldest church (San Giacomo del Rialto – is the oldest) or largest church in Venice (Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo), but the most important spiritually and socially. It is a Basilica, Cathedral and a Church all in one:
    • Cathedral because it is the home church of the bishop
    • Basilica because the Roman Catholic Church gives that special deignation to certain churches of religious importance
    • Church as it is a local and active parish!
  • Interweaves the Byzantine and Gothic styles. Venice as under Byzantium rule for some time and traded extensively with the ‘East’ – this Byzantium style is closely related to Venice’s history. The Gothic arches and domes are soaring – as if to touch the heavens
  • There are 85,000 square feet of mosaics in St. Mark’s – that is the equivalent of 1.5 Football Fields!
    • The mosaics are an ancient art form that was perfected by Byzantium…glass and gold create tesserare to form these elaborate images. The mastery and time to build the mosaics took over 800 centuries to fully complete (most were finished by The Renaissance)
    • This article gives a good overview of how mosaics are made
    • The mosaics at St. Mark’s are clad with gold and shimmer in the candlelight.
  • While the mosaics are beautiful and move you into closer communion (contemplation) with God, they serve a practical purpose too. Until the past several centuries many in the general population were illiterate. The Mass was in Latin and therefore the stories of The Bible could be read visually by all people to understand the message of scripture.
  • The glistening and mystical domed basilica is so overpowering to the senses that the architects actually built a grand narthex (entrance) to prepare visitors for what they were about to see.
  • The narthex includes mosaics from the 11th-13th centuries that tell stories of the Old Testmament and Apostles
  • The main church is filled with mosaics telling the story of The New Testament including:
    • Jesus’s Ascension into Heaven
    • The Miracles of Jesus
    • Life of Mary and The Apostles
  • The floors are filled with geometric tiles designed in part by Paolo Uccello to mimic the perfect geometry of the universe.
    • The idea is to excite the mind and invite you to wonder about God’s plan for humanity.
  • Many of the treasures were ‘stolen’ loot from Constantinople. During the 13th-century, The Venetians sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. It was an unfortunate incident based on a previous ‘fight’ Constantinople had exacted on Venice. Both were Christian cities at the time and this had less to do with crusading than revenge. It unfortunately crippled Constantinople which later fell to the Ottomans in the 1400s. Learn about this history here

The Narthex:

  • The gorgeous mosaics and large bronze doors that have unique animal engravings instantly draw you in
  • From the ‘skip the line’ entrance (more info here), you’ll first see the story of the church’s history…The mosaic tells of the ‘theft of St. Mark’s body to Venice.’
  • The next set of mosaics are focused on The Old Testament as well as images of the Apostles. These mosaics range from the 11th-13th centuries.
    • Highlight: The Mosaic of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood
  • The bronze doors were made in Constantinople and a gift of Alexius Comneus I (Byzantine Emperor)
    • The Byzantaine Empire was originally the Eastern half of The Roman Empire. Established by Emperor Constantine it thrived until falling to The Ottomans in the 1400s.
  • In the floor you’ll see a tile representing ‘The Imperial Stone’ – When the Holy Roman Emperor bowed down to Pope Alexander
  • The Sacrophagi of the early Venetian Doges are here. Later the Doges were forbidden (with a few exceptions) from being buried in St. Mark’s as a sign of humility and service.

As you step into the main church, one can only be overwhelmed with what feels like a mystical experience…the endless gold tesserae and colorful glass in ornate mosaics shimmer in the candlelight. Ironically there are few windows in St. Mark’s (the windows are painted over with mosaics mostly) so it is dark but the candlelight causes the gold and colors to create a kaleidoscope effect.

  • Notice on of the Christ as Pantocrator – Christ as King of the Universe – welcomin gyou in with a sign of blessing as you step inside the church. Learn moe about this common image in Christendom here.
Noah’s Ark

The Nave:

Each crevice and wing of St. Mark’s is ornately decorated with stories of the life of Jesus, the saints, Mary and the 12 Apostles.

I was drawn to:

  • Pentecost Mosaic: the dove of the Holy Spirit shoots out laser rays of heavenly power – igniting tongues of fire on the heads of the 12 apostles. Unfamiliar with the Gospel story? Click here

  • Central Dome Ascension Mosaic

Other must see areas of The Basilica:

To be honest you are so overwhelmed by an ecstasy of sorts in taking in the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica that it can be helpful to pause (and pray) and just observe. Don’t try to remember it all. Take pictures if you can, but mostly just enjoy the majesty of the moment.

On our tour we had limited time and upon my return I’ll plan to stay after the tour group just to have a few hours in St. Mark’s alone. It really has a lot of treasure to uncover. I can be helpful to return two days in a row: Day 1 with a general tour, Day 2 for your second walk through

The Relics:

  • The body of St. Mark is under the high altar
  • Saint Isidore, a Greek saint from the late 3rd century is also buried in his own chapel at St. Mark’s. St. Isidore is the patron saint of farmers
  • The church is home to countless relics in The Treasury Museum, including the cloth that is believed to be used by Jesus to wash his disciples feet

The Golden Altarpiece (Pala d’Oro)

Considered one of the most refined works of Bzantine enamel work, the Pala D’Oro is a gilded treasure.

  • Originally commissioned by Doge Pietro Orseolo in 976, the altarpiece was later expanded in 1105 (Doge Falier)and 1345 (goldsmith Giovanni Bonsesgna)
  • The altarpiece is covered in gold and has 1300 pearls, hundreds of gems including 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, rubies and topazes
  • Pala d’Oro – Golden Cloth is the high altar retable of the Basilica – most recognized and refined works of Byzantine enamel with both front and rear sides decorated
  • Pala d’Oro puts the Crown Jewels to shame
    • 1300 pearls, altar schreen of gold, hundreds of gems, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes
  • It has two sections:
    • the top section features Archanegel Michael at the center of the piece, with scenes the life of Christ on either side of him
      • A portion of this section was made from ‘loot’ of Venice’s sack of Constantinople.
    • the bottom section is an enamel depicting Christ at the center of the altarpiece, surrounded by the Four Evangelists; Above Christ lies an empty throne symbolizing The Last Judgment and Second coming of Christ. Angels can

Our Lady of Nicopeia (Our Lady of Victory)

This icon of the Virgin Mary was taken during the Sack of Constantinople in The Fourth Crusade. It was known for it’s miraculous powers during Byzantine battles (they’d march into battle with it). The Venetians took the icon and began to also use it in battle and against plague. It was originally believed to be painted by St. Luke (patron of artists) but it ws actually painted by talented Byzantine artists Luke of Constantinople.

Either way it is a beautiful icon that helps lead the faithful to hope in prayer.

Touring the Museums:

St. Mark’s includes a wonderful collection of museums including:

  • The Treasury, The Relics Room and a Main area of exhibits

Here you will also find the historic masters of Venice (booty from Constantinople) – The Horses of St. Mark.

  • The horses date to classicial antiquity (2nd-3rd century AD) and were probably created for a Triumphal Arch but later were displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, where they remained until the Venetian’s sacked Rome in 1204 during The Fourth Crusade
  • They became an emblem of Venice’s power, such that when Napoleon took over in 1797 he forcibly removed the horses and had them sent to Paris. Thankfully Venice eventually got them back.
  • They were moved into the Basilica in the 1980s to protect them from damage. You can see exact copies outside today.

I hope you enjoyed this quick introduction to St. Mark’s.

If you are ready for your own adventure at this most holy place I recommend you check out the following resources:

  • Official Basilica Website
  • Rick Steves Audio Tour
  • There are numerous guided tours in Venice, where you can ‘skip the line.’ I recommend researching the different options and reading the reviews.
  • The Wondrium (Great Courses) Great Tours of Italy segment on St. Mark’s is excellent and helped prep me for my own visit to this grand place.

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