This stunning basilica, built on a Greek-cross plan and crowned with five huge domes, clearly shows the influence of Byzantine architecture, which had been brought to Venice via the city’s extensive links with the East.
The present basilica is the third church to stand on this site. The first, built to enshrine the body of St. Mark, was destroyed by a fire. The second was pulled down in the 11th century to make way for a more spectacular edifice, built to reflect the escalating power of the Venetian Republic. In 1807, St. Mark’s succeeded San Pietro in the administrative district of Castello as the cathedral of Venice; it had until then served as the doge’s chapel for state ceremonies.
The most valuable treasure held in St. Mark’s Basilica is the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altar Screen). This jewel-spangled altarpiece is situated behind the high altar, beyond the chapel of St. Clement. The Pala consists of 250 enamel paintings on gold foil, enclosed within a silver-gilt Gothic frame. The subjects include scenes from the life of Christ and the life of St. Mark. Begun in Byzantium in 976, the altarpiece was enlarged and embellished over the centuries. Following the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Napoleon removed some of the precious stones, but the screen still gleams with jewels such as pearls, rubies, sapphires, and amethysts.
ST. MARK’S TREASURY
Although St. Mark’s Treasury was plundered after the Napoleonic invasion in the late 18th century, and much depleted by a fundraising sale of jewels in the early 19th century, it nevertheless possesses a precious collection of Byzantine silver, gold, and glasswork. Today, the treasures, 283 pieces in all, are mainly housed in a room with remarkably thick walls believed to have been a 9th-century tower of the original Doge’s Palace. A dazzling array of exhibits by Byzantine and Venetian craftsmen includes chalices, goblets, reliquaries, two intricate icons of the Archangel Michael, and an 11th-century silver-gilt reliquary made in the form of a five- domed basilica.
ST. MARK’S MUSEUM
A stairway from the basilica’s atrium leads up to the Museo Marciano, or church museum. The original Horses of St. Mark—which stood on the basilica’s facade for centuries before being replaced by the replicas seen today — are housed here. Stolen from the Hippodrome (and ancient racecourse) in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1204, their origin, either Roman or Hellenistic, remains a mystery. A so on display are Paolo Venezia no’s 14th-century Pala Feriale, painted with stories from the life of St. Mark, medieval illuminated manuscripts, fragments of ancient mosaics, and antique tapestries. There are splendid views of the basilica’s interior from the museum’s gallery and the Piazza San Marco can be seen from the external loggia.
This 17th-century mosaic shows the smuggling out of Alexandria of St Mark’s remains, reputedly under slices of pork to get them past the Muslim guards.
Central Doorway Carvings
The central arch features 13th-century carvings of the Labors of the Month
Horses of St Mark
These four horses are replicas of the gilded bronze originals, now protected inside the Museo Marciano
Herod’s Banquet (1343-54) is one of the mosaics in a cycle of scenes from the life of St John the Baptist
St Mark and Angels
The statues crowning the central arch are additions from the early 15th century
This was probably the first dome to be decorated with mosaics. It shows the Descent of the Holy Ghost as a dove.
This features a magnificent 13th-century mosaic of Christ surrounded by angels, the 12 Apostles, and the Virgin Mary.
St. Mark’s Body
Believed lost in the fire of AD 976, St. Mark’s remains reportedly reappeared when the new church was consecrated in 1094. They are housed in the high altar.
This charming porphyry sculpture (4th-century Egyptian) is thought to represent Diocletian, Maximian, Valerian, and Constance. Collectively, they were the tetrarchs, appointed by Emperor Diocletian to help rule the Roman Empire.
Pilasters of Acre
These carved pillars, once thought to come from Acre in Palestine, were taken from a 6th-century church in Constantinople in 1204.
EAST MEETS WEST
Dark, mysterious, and enriched with the spoils of conquest, the basilica is a unique blend of Eastern and Western influences. It was modeled on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (which no longer exists) and embellished over the centuries with mosaics, marble, and carvings. It is named after St Mark, the patron saint of Venice.
832: A shrine is built to house the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, brought from its tomb in Alexandria in Egypt.
1063-94: A third church, much as it is seen today, is built on the site.
1345: The Pala d’Oro is finally completed. It was commissioned in 976.
1987: The city of Venice and its lagoon are added to UNESCO’s War Id Heritage list.