24 August, 2006

91. A surfeit of saints

The winged lion of St. Mark is on one of the two granite pillars. On top of the other one is the original, and largely forgotten, patron saint of Venice.

St. Theodore Tyro, also known as St.Theodore of Amasea, was an early Christian martyr. A young soldier in the Roman army, he was burned at the stake in 306AD for refusing to renounce his Christianity (and possibly also for burning down a pagan temple). For reasons hard to fathom, one of the symbols associated with St. Theodore is the crocodile, and this rather modern looking statue depicts him standing with a curiously odd version of that animal, most likely carved by someone who had never seen a crocodile.

St. Theodore is venerated in the Eastern Church and became the patron saint of Venice very early in the existence of the city, when it was still a vassal state of Byzantium, but he is not what you would call a major league saint. As Venice's power and its ambitions grew, it was in danger of being ignored by Rome as a religious centre of influence because it had no ecclesiastical clout compared to the longer established Christian centres in places like Antioch and Alexandria.

We will never know whether it was the result of a cunning plan devised by Doge Participazio, or just a quick-witted entrepreneurial action, but in 828 AD, two Venetian merchants managed to persuade the Christian church in Alexandria to let them smuggle the body of St. Mark the Evangelist out of the city – "just for his own protection, you understand". St. Mark had been the Bishop of Alexandria and had died there, but the city was then under Saracen control, and there must have been some genuine concern about the safety of this most sacred Christian relic. The colourful story goes that the smell of the decomposing corpse as it was carted to the waiting ship aroused the suspicions of the Saracen guards, but the merchants hid the cadaver under a pile of pork meat, which the Islamic soldiers were unable to go near, let alone touch.

The church in Alexandria never had any chance of getting their grisly relic back. Owning the entire body of one of the Gospel-writing Evangelists gave the city of Venice the Apostolic patronage and prestige it needed, immediately lifting it to a holiness ranking second only to Rome itself.

Poor old St. Theodore never got another look in, even though he still presides over the city from one of the two pillars at the city's ceremonial entrance. Strangely, that same area of the Piazetta was also, up until the 19th century, the chosen site for state executions, and many Venetians are still too superstitious to ever walk between these two great columns.

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