25 August, 2006

92. Hide and seek

This mosaic from the 13th century is unique for several reasons. It is in one of the nine lunettes (semicircular recesses) in the façade of St Mark's cathedral, but it is the only early exterior mosaic to survive, all the others having been replaced by more modern works during various renovations up until the 18th century. It is also the earliest representation we have of St. Mark's cathedral itself, which gives us a good idea what the front of the basilica would have looked like around 1250 AD.

We can see that all of the lunettes apart from the huge Christ over the doorway are shown to be at that time filled with just decorative designs, whereas now they are all figurative narrative scenes. We can also see that the front of the cathedral was no longer bare brick, which it was in the late 11th century when it was first built. A mere hundred years later it was already richly decorated with many different kinds of coloured stone.

This picture has the stylized feel of an Orthodox church icon, because when it was made it was still early enough to have been influenced by the then dominant Byzantine imagery and the Eastern church's craft skills. It is even possible that it was carried out by imported Byzantine craftsmen, as were so many of the mosaics in the interior of St.Mark's. It is dated after the beginning of the 13th century, because it shows the stolen horses of Constantinople, the Quadriga, already in place above the mighty image of Christ Pantocrator dominating the entrance to the church. This powerful figure has unfortunately since been replaced with a much less inspiring baroque group of figures showing Christ holding his cross at the centre with cherubs in clouds sprinkled all around him.

On the shoulders of the two senior clerics in the middle is a coffin containing St. Mark's body, shown entering the church. This is a big lump of artistic license, firstly because the corpse looks remarkably healthy given that by the time it arrived in Venice it must have been decomposing for about 750 years, and secondly, because it was not this church that St. Mark was carried into and buried, it was the first church built on this spot in the 9th century.

That church burned down in 976 AD, leaving the Doge, the Patriarch, the bishops and the clergy with a problem, because no trace remained in the charred rubble of exactly where St Mark had been interred. Only three people knew the exact location and they were now all dead. This present church was built on the same spot to replace it, and at its consecration, a High Mass was held to pray for the recovery of the relics. Miraculously, during the service, some supporting masonry crumbled away and a human arm protruded from the hole, an arm immediately recognized as belonging to the Evangelist. Amid great jubilation, the now 900 year old corpse was pulled out of its hiding place and reburied in the new cathedral.

I know what you're thinking, but no, that wasn’t the synopsis of an episode of Fawlty Towers, it's supposed to be what actually happened. Really.


Anonymous Poker Promotions said...

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