Sacred Spaces: Basilica di San Marco

Photo by Tango7174. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Built in the eleventh century, the Basilica di San Marco (or, St. Mark’s Basilica) is one of the most famous and ornate Byzantine-style churches in the world.  Did you know, though, that the renowned church is actually the second one to be built in that location?

The first Basilica was erected in the ninth century to house the sacred relics of St. Mark.  In fact, “[t]he term ‘Basilica’ denotes a church that houses remains of a saint.”  These relics had actually been stolen, along with the body of St. Mark (one of the four Apostles) from Alexandria, Egypt.  Since St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice, the thieves probably felt it only right that the saint be laid to rest in the city.  In any case, the relics were safely smuggled out of Egypt and transported to Venice.  Unfortunately:

“[w]hile at sea, a storm almost drowned the graverobbers and their precious cargo, it’s said that St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved, and the merchants said they owed their safety to the miracle. The entire story is pictured on the 13th-century mosaic above the left door as you enter the basilica.” 

This was not the only hurdle that faced the Basilica.  Around 976, the church was burned in a revolt against Doge Candiano IV.  In 1063, the church was rebuilt, under Doge Domenico Contarini, on the original church’s foundation.  The building we’re familiar with today “…was consecrated on 8th October 1094 when the body of St. Mark was definitively deposited in a marble tomb beneath the high altar.”

The church is laid out in the shape of a Greek cross, each arm with a central nave and side aisle.  Five splendid cupolas cover these arms and the point at which they intersect.  Approximately a century after the church was completed, an atrium was built, followed by a baptistery in the 14th century.

The Treasures of the Basilica

Photo by Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys). Via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the remains of St. Mark, the Basilica is also home to a trove of beautiful and precious treasures, which has earned it the nickname Chiesa d’Oro, or “Church of Gold.”  The largest of these treasures is also the easiest to see: the church’s great mosaics.

There are enough mosaics in the Basilica to cover nearly two football fields.  Mostly completed in gold, the mosaics took over eight centuries to finish.  And the long work and attention to details certainly shows! The mosaics represent stories from the Bible, allegorical figures, and scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and many saints.

The mosaics “feature a literary text in Latin, mostly drawn from the books of the Old and New Testaments. There are mediaeval prayers or invocations. The individual figures of the saints are also accompanied by their names.”

It would take days to take in all of the small details of these exquisite works of art, especially since the mosaics “change” at throughout the day (the changes in light make the colors and scenes appear different).

“As well as the beautiful mosaics, the Basilica is home to a number of treasures – many of which were brought home from the Crusades, in particular, stolen from Constantinople / Istanbul. This includes the four bronze horses you can see, parts of the golden altar, chalices[,] and crosses.”

Photo via

The Treasure of St. Mark’s encompasses over 280 pieces of gold, silver, glass, and other precious materials.  As mentioned before, many of these treasures were taken following the conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.  These pieces are  some of the finest examples of Byzantine art and craftsmanship.  “For the most part they are liturgical chalices, bowls and patens in semi-precious stone mounted on Byzantine enamelled gold-work. It also includes two icons of the Archangel Michael with enamelled frames.”  The majority of the 500 columns of the basilica were also taken from Constantinople (and date between the sixth and eleventh centuries).

The treasures of St. Mark’s also include gifts from popes, royalty, or doges, along with Islamic vases and bowls and Venetian filigree.

Of the trove, the most precious piece is the Pala d’Oro which contains the relics of St. Mark.  “The Pala d’Oro, a 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.”

The Pala d’Oro.

Tour the Basilica di San Marco

Take a tour of St. Mark’s without needing a passport! The wonderful video below showcases the beauty and architecture of the Basilica.  (Can’t see the video below? Click here to view it directly on YouTube).

Main photo via
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