St. Mark’s Basilica has been the main church in Venice for almost 1,000 years. As with anything that has been around for hundreds of years, there are plenty of interesting and sometimes unbelievable facts about the place. Let’s delve into them now.
11 Astounding Facts About St. Mark’s Basilica
Legend has it that the first settlements took place in this lagoon after the fall of the Western Roman Empire ( 476 AD). Once the Roman Empire fell, the Byzantine empire filled the vacuum in the ensuing centuries.
Since Venice is located on the Adriatic, it was much closer to the Byzantine realm of influence as opposed to Rome or other southern settlements. As a result, the architecture of the Doge’s Palace is byzantine and full of interesting stories!
11. It Was the Private Chapel of the Doge
The Doge has always been a pretty powerful guy in Venice. Therefore it makes sense that the best church is the place where he went to pray. For 1,000 years St. Mark’s Basilica was the “Doge’s Church” in every aspect. The Doge’s were elected in here as well, strengthening even more the bond.
Throughout the church’s history, major events and celebrations always took place inside. At the beginning of the 19th century, St. Mark’s became the cathedral of Venice and therefore the Doge lost his primary grip over the church.
10. The 4 Horses Were Taken from Constantinople
When you go into the museum of the church, you will see a quadriga or 4 horses made of bronze. The statues are ancient and were stolen from Constantinople and brought back to Venice as spoils of war. This is just one example of the many items taken from Constantinople during the 4th crusade.
You might be thinking, ” Wait wasn’t Constantinople a Christian city? How could there be a crusade against them?” Your question would be correct. The original intention was a holy war for the holy land. Things got complicated and the Doge wanted to exact revenge on Constantinople for an earlier offense. The rest is history.
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9. The Church has Eastern Roots
Since the beginning, Venice had citizens who travelled the world. Their maritime culture introduced them to many other cultures that most Italians would not have seen. They were especially close with the Byzantine empire.
All of these factors explain why St. Mark’s Basilica doesn’t look like any typical church in the West. If you visit Istanbul ( ancient Byzantium) you will notice that St. Mark’s resembles more the Hagia Sophia.
8. The Treasure of St Mark’s has Gold… A lot of it
The Treasure of St. Mark’s” is a collection of precious objects and masterpieces kept inside of the Basilica throughout the centuries. For example, you’ll see ancient vases, amphorae, enameled glasses covered in precious stones displayed throughout the perimeter.
The collection has 283 pieces in Gold, Silver, and other precious metals. As with many things in the church, most of the items were part of the treasure taken after the sacking of Constantinople.
7. The Pala d’Oro is Astounding all by Itself
The Doge Ordelaffo Falier ordered the design in 1102 and received it in 1105. He wanted to create a screen to go over the high altar.
Certainly, this is one of the main highlights of visiting the church. The word Pala comes from the Latin word Palla for cloth. As a result, the church would at times decorate the images of saints with this cloth, and over time they replaced it with gold or silver. Byzantine altar screen of gold, is studded with hundreds of gems – literally. They include 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes.
6. St. Mark helped his Kidnappers
In the year 828, a group of men stole the remains of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria. Supposedly they were able to get away with it by hiding them under a wagon of pork. The Muslim guard who inspected them, didn’t want to have anything to do with the pork and let them pass.
As they were sailing back to Venice a huge storm took hold of the boat. According to legend, the boat was definitely about to sink when a vision of St. Mark appeared to them and told the captain to lower the sails. As a result they didn’t capsize and made it safely to Venice.
5. The Church was Originally for a Different Saint
Originally, the patron saint of Venice was St. Theodore who was a Greek saint. The Venetians built the church around 819 and were most likely from wood. Needless to say, after the theft of the relics of St. Mark, that changed everything.
The Doge understood that relics of such an important saint would bring streams of pilgrims, which in turn brought money. That is why the doge decided to change the patron saint to St. Mark. In the 11th century, they started construction on the current church you see today.
4.There is a relief of the Virgin Mary with a Gun
Yes, that is correct. Probably my favorite astounding fact about St. Mark’s Basilica is this carved relief.
In the left transept of the church, you can observe some interesting Romanesque style relief sculptures. One of them is a carving of the Madonna and child and there is a votive offering of a rifle. The mystery remains of how it got there but goes to show how the Madonna has been staying up to date with the changes in the world.
3. The church has over 500 columns inside
Yes, that is not a typo. 500 columns and most of them are dating from between the 6th-11th centuries. As with most items, they are spoils of war from the conquest of Constantinople. Others are imitations from the middle ages.
2. The Oldest Tomb is 1,000 years old
The honor goes to the Doge Vitale Falier who consecrated the basilica in 1096. Not long after is the tomb of Dogaressa Felicita Michiel whose piety was so strong, she was honored by being buried in the Basilica as well. Imagine how much that tomb has seen and if only it had a mouth to tell us all the cool stories! This is definitely one of my favorite facts about St. Mark’s Basilica.
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1. Mosaics- More than you can Imagine
There are over 850,000 sq ft (8,000sq m) of mosaics covering the interior of the Basilica, including the five domes. You could spend hours just looking at the ceilings. Just to put that into perspective, the area covered by mosaics is the same size as Buckingham Palace!
The artwork tells stories from the Holy Bible, myths and local legends, episodes from the Virgin Mary and Jesus’ life, and most of, all St. Mark’s. The contrast between the bright ceilings and darker marble floors actually represents the contrast between life in heaven and life on earth.