Sacred Sunday: Mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Italy (11th-13th centuries) Part 1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA St Mark’s Basilica in Venice is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. In 828, Venetian merchants stole the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist from their original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. They were initially housed in a temporary chapel within the Doge’s Palace, but a more substantial church was built to shelter the valuable relics in 829-32. The present basilica, which incorporates the earlier buildings, was completed around 1071. The interior is decorated with mosaics, dating mostly from the 12th century, that cover a total area of about 8,000 square meters on the vaults and cupolas. The mosaics depict events from the New Testament. The narthex, an architectural feature common to Byzantine churches, wraps around the west end of the basilica. It is also decorated with mosaics depicting stories from the Old Testament, dating mostly from the 13th century. The oldest mosaics, dating from the late 11th century, are on the are on the façade, on the main portal. As is usually the case with my blog, each individual photo can be clicked on for a closer look! This is Part 1 of Basilica di San Marco; Part 2 will continue next Sunday. Crash

Vaulting, nave and transept 12th century Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Vaulting, nave and transept
12th century
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Vaulting, nave and transept 12th century Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Vaulting, nave and transept
12th century
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The broad arch in the foreground (above photo) has mosaics of Scenes from the Passion of Christ, a work of great dramatic intensity and emotional power. Beyond can be glimpsed the dome of the Ascension and a pendentive with the Evangelist Matthew seated at his desk.

West (Pentecost) cupola 12th century Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

West (Pentecost) cupola
12th century
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The picture (above) represents part of the nave of the Basilica, showing clearly the rhythmic pattern that pervades the dome of Pentecost, with the twelve Apostles illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

Main apse (detail) c. 1100 Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Main apse (detail)
c. 1100
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Around 1100, only slightly later than the main portal, the main apse of San Marco was decorated with mosaics that have not wholly survived. All that remains from that early phase are the four figures of saints in the window level: Peter, Mark, Nicholas, and Hermagoras. Their importance as Venice’s patron saints is emphasized in the inscription above.

Clement Chapel mosaics (detail) c. 1150 Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Clement Chapel mosaics (detail)
c. 1150
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The presbytery in San Marco is flanked by the St Peter Chapel to the north and the St Clement Chapel to the south, for whose mosaic decor date around the mid-twelfth century is assumed. The titular saints are presented in the apses, and additional saints appear on the walls and in the vaults. The Clement Chapel also has an enthroned Pantocrator and scenes from the legend of Peter and Clement. The miracles of St Mark and his martyrdom and burial are pictured in the Peter Chapel, the translation of his relics from Alexandria by Venetian merchants in the Clement Chapel. The picture above shows one of the most charming and animated scenes in which St Mark prevents a shipwreck.

Crossing (Ascension) cupola 1175-1200 Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Crossing (Ascension) cupola
1175-1200
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The subject of the mosaics in the crossing cupola is the Ascension of Christ. Seated on a gold arc of light in front of a starry sky, Christ has raised his right hand in benediction as four graceful angels carry him aloft. In a radial arrangement around this central motif the Virgin, two flanking angels, and the twelve apostles point upward. Only Mary is shown in a frontal view, even the angels are given a twisting movement, and the apostles are considerably more animated. Sixteen animated allegories of Virtues and Beatitudes appear between the windows at the bottom of the cupola. The pictorial program of the crossing cupola continues in the pendentives with the evangelists and personifications of the rivers of paradise. There is an evident Byzantine influence in the work of the artist who guided the Venetian craftsmen in the decoration of this dome.

Ascension cupola (detail)
1175-1200
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

(Above photo) Seated on a gold arc of light in front of a starry sky, Christ has raised his right hand in benediction as four graceful angels carry him aloft. In a radial arrangement around this central motif the Virgin, two flanking angels, and the twelve apostles point upward.

East (choir) cupola 12th century Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

East (choir) cupola
12th century
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The central pictorial motif in the choir cupola is a half-figure of Christus Emmanuel (Messias, God with us) against a starry sky and framed by an aureole. The Virgin and thirteen prophets posed as orants radiate out from it. The texts displayed on inscription ribbons by the prophets herald the coming of the Saviour. The symbols of the evangelists appear in the four pendentives below. The mosaics in the cupola are variously dated from the early to the late twelfth century. The figure of Christus Emmanuel was restored in the fifteenth century.

North (John) cupola (detail) 1100-50  Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

North (John) cupola (detail)
1100-50
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The mosaics in the north cupola (John cupola – above photo) depicts scenes from the life of St John the Evangelist. They date from the first half of the twelfth century. The detail of the cupola represents the awakening of the two men killed by the poisoned drink intended for the apostles; St John in the pose of an orant; awakening of Drusiana.

South (Leonard) cupola 1100-20 Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

South (Leonard) cupola
1100-20
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The mosaics in the south cupola, or Leonard cupola (above), dating from the early twelfth century, present no scenic compositions but only a cross on the top and figures of Sts Leonard, Clement, Blasius, and Nicholas. (The female saints in the pendentives are of more recent date).

West (Pentecost) cupola 1100-50 Mosaic Basilica di San Marco, Venice

West (Pentecost) cupola
1100-50
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The mosaics in the west cupola, or Pentecost cupola, were created before the middle of the twelfth century. Following Byzantine iconography, the Outpouring of the Holy Ghost is linked to the Hetoimasia. (Hetoimasia: prepared throne, Preparation of the Throne, ready throne or Throne of the Second Coming is the Christian version of the symbolic subject of the empty throne found in the art of the ancient world. In the Middle Byzantine period, from about 1000, it came to represent more specifically the throne prepared for the Second Coming of Christ, a meaning it has retained in Eastern Orthodox art to the present.) Rays leading outward from the throne – which is surrounded by a circle of light, and onto which the dove of the Holy Ghost has settled – turn into flames when they strike the heads of the enthroned apostles. Below the apostles, between the windows, are representations of the various peoples, dressed in differing costumes, who were astonished to hear the apostles speaking in their diverse languages. Angels look down from the pendentives, pointing to the event taking place above them. The figures in the bowl of the cupola are livelier than those in the earlier mosaics.

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