13 July, 2006

49. Inside San Marco

It doesn't matter how many of the other great cathedrals in the world that you might have been to – Westminster Abbey in London, St Peter's in Rome, Chartres in France – none of these will prepare you for the gilded experience that awaits you inside St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

The gothic cathedrals of western Europe, like Chartres or Westminster, are characterized by their avenues of soaring columns reaching to the heavens, their intricate vaulting and their elaborate stained glass windows. The huge renaissance cathedral of St Peter's has a massive central dome decorated with marble and fresco. The ground plans of both types are shaped like a crucifix with a long central nave and shorter side arms, and they take your breath away with the light airy spaciousness of their interior spaces.

St Mark's is different. It's not a small church by any means, but it almost feels cosy, it's so enveloping and intimate compared with the others mentioned. This cathedral doesn’t try to overwhelm you with its physical scale, with its bold design, with the impressiveness of its structure, it just surrounds you with warmth, with the stories that matter to it, with the people at the centre of the mysteries to which it is dedicated. It beguiles you with its details and it invites you to sit quietly and think about them and share them. It is a much more spiritual place, if that word has any meaning at all to me.

San Marco is the kind of church that daylight should never be admitted into, a dimness that should always be lit by candles, flickering off the gold mosaic tiles on the walls like some stationary disco mirror ball, the air diffused with the haze of centuries of burned incense. Every square inch of the walls is covered in mosaic saints and martyrs and apostles and scenes of the prophets and events in the life of Christ, all set against a background of burnished gold glazed tile fragments.

The Greek cross layout with its five domes, four identical sized ones on the four equal length arms and the one much bigger central dome, betray the Eastern Orthodox stem of the religion as the origin of the style and character of St Mark's, so unusual in the west.

It wasn't until after I'd taken this photograph that I noticed the small sign nearby which said "Vietate fotographia" – Photography prohibited. No, really.


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