Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, begun 1063 and Anastasis (The Harrowing of Hell) mosaic, c. 1180-1200, Middle Byzantine

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice. It’s called Saint Mark because it holds the body, the relic, of Saint Mark.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] A couple of Venetian merchants stole the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria in 829. When his body was brought back, this was obviously an incredibly important relic, and the construction on the church began soon after that.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] Now, think about this. Saint Mark was one of the Evangelists, one of the authors of the New Testament, it doesn’t get more important than this.

[0:00] The idea of bringing his body back from Alexandria was especially important because Egypt was then controlled not by the Byzantine Empire — that is, not by the Christian world — but it was in Islamic hands.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] There is even a legend that Saint Mark had a vision that his final resting place should be in Venice.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] Of course, these are the legends that grow up to justify these historical events.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] That’s how it seems to us, certainly in the 21st century.

[1:01] The church is Byzantine in style in every way that we think about Byzantine architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] The church that we’re in currently was begun in 1063. It replaced two earlier and smaller shrines. This does refer to the Byzantine in very direct ways. The Venetians wanted their art, their architecture, to recall not only the Byzantine, the Eastern traditions, but specifically the traditions of Constantinople.

[0:00] This church was based on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, a church that no longer exists.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] Like the Church of the Holy Apostles, Saint Mark’s is essentially a Greek cross, a cross with equal arms, with domes over each arm and another dome over the crossing.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Those domes recall, very directly, the kind of architecture that we find in Constantinople — that is, a dome that has windows at its base, a necklace of light that makes the dome seem to levitate upward and not to be supported.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] That’s the idea of the whole interior, the sense of being in a golden jewel box. The walls are covered with golden mosaics, so you have this sense of what you know to be solid wall dissolving into glittering light.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] 40,000 square feet of the surface of this church is covered with mosaic.

Dr. Harris: [2:24] The mosaics date from different time periods, but let’s take a look at an early mosaic of a subject called the Harrowing of Hell, also known as the Anastasis.

[2:34] This is Christ, who’s gone into Hell. He’s battered down the doors. He’s going in to save virtuous souls who are there because they lived before the possibility of salvation — that is, before his sacrifice on the cross.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] In this case, you actually see Christ grabbing the wrist of Adam. Eve is just behind him. He’s going to save Adam and Eve from limbo — that is, from not being able to enter Heaven.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] You’ll notice that he’s grabbing Adam not by the hand but by the wrist. This idea that human beings can’t save themselves, but needed Christ’s sacrifice, they need Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] It’s not a partnership, in other words. It is Christ leading them out.

[0:00] Behind them, perhaps other worthy souls, perhaps Old Testament prophets. My favorite part is what Christ is standing on.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] He’s standing on Satan, whose hands are bound in chains and who’s represented in a much darker color.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Around him is the debris of Christ’s entrance into hell. You can see the chains strewn about. You can see keys. You can see the doors of Hell that Christ had knocked down and now forms a cross.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] All of this, of course, in this typical Byzantine style, with a gold background, with forms of drapery created by lines that are more stylized than the way drapery falls on a human body.

Dr. Zucker: [4:00] Look at Christ for a moment. If you follow his right arm, the arm that holds Adam’s wrist, look just over the elbow. You see a bit of drapery that is flying up, and it not only seems to have a life of its own, but also seems to suggest that Christ has just arrived.

[4:07] Look at the length of those bodies. Look at their attenuation. This is not the proportion of ancient Greece. This is not the Renaissance. This is that moment in the mid-Byzantine style where we see the symbolic representation of the human form, not a precise rendering that is based on observation.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] Or look at Adam kneeling, with his right knee coming to a point…

[0:00] [laughter]

Dr. Harris: [0:00] …and then his left calf and foot extending out behind him. This is not naturalism, this is a symbolic Byzantine language that we know so well.

[0:00] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed May 24, 2024,