Venice and The Lion of St. Mark: History, Mystery, and Glory

Donato Veneziano Painting Winged Lion inside Doges Palace
Everyone who visits Venice can’t help but notice the city’s special relationship with lions. In Venice lions are everywhere: on pedestals, on walls, on paintings inside Venice’s museums and churches, and even on door bells of apartment buildings. With wings and without, resting upon a book, or standing proudly on pedestals, lions seem to at once own and protect this magical city. So what is the nature of Venice’s special relationship with this mighty animal and why has Venice for centuries been inseparable from the image of a winged lion?The answer goes deep into the ancient history, all the way to the ninth century, to be exact. Having grown and developed mighty military and economic presence on the Mediterranean, by the ninth century Venice sought to establish itself as a significant regional power that would be recognized as such by neighbors close and far. Back in those days that meant boasting not just military and economic but also religious significance, giving the government additional legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, friends, and enemies. To help with that mission, two Venetian merchants named Buono and Rustico developed a bold plan to steal the body of St. Mark from largely Muslim Egypt, where it was resting in one of Alexandria’s churches, and secretly bring it to Venice.Their reasoning was that helping remove the sacred remains of one of the most significant Christian saints from the Muslim-dominated area and bringing them to Venice, where according to some sources he once preached, would be a great Christian deed and a service to the State of Venice. After a brief conversation with one of the keepers of the church hosting the body of St. Mark, the Venetians found the remains, hid them in a barrel of salted pork, and easily moved them onto their ship as Muslim guards in the port avoided touching or even smelling pork.
Winged Lion with Doge on Piazza SanMarco
The government and people of Venice rejoiced upon getting the news that St. Mark’s holy relics arrived in Venice. St. Mark immediately was pronounced Venice’s new patron saint, replacing St. Theodore. St. Theodore was a revered Greek saint in Eastern Catholic Church, signifying Venice’s subordination and its deep connection to Constantinople. By replacing their patron saint with one of the top Christian saints revered by the Western Church, Venetians further highlighted their independence from Byzantium. The orders were made to start building the Basilica in Venice to host the relics, which is how St. Mark’s Basilica came about in the year 832 AD on the place of modest Doge’s chapel, and the saint’s remains were buried there. The lion, as the well-recognized symbol of Evangelist St. Mark, started to appear in various representations throughout not only the city of Venice but the entire Venetian state. This was a point of special pride for the Venetians and of course they wanted to demonstrate their newly found religious and spiritual significance far and wide. Lions from bronze and marble, lions guarding palazzo’s and gardens, lions on the reliefs of various buildings, and lions as key decorative element of fountains and squares (or campos, as they are known in Venice) – to this day it is hard to walk a few minutes in Venice without seeing a depiction of a lion somewhere along the way.
Winged Lion San Marco Piazzetta
The main Venetian lion is, of course, the one made out of bronze that stands proudly atop a tall column on the Piazzetta, adjacent to Piazza San Marco, both greeting the arriving visitors from the Lagoon and guarding the city for over eight hundred years. At the end of the eleventh century Venetians helped Byzantium win the war against Phoenician town of Tyre. As a reward, they received three ancient granite columns, each one weighing over 100 tonnes. However, only two of these columns actually made it ashore as the third one drowned during unloading in Venice and was never pulled out. The two columns laid untouched on the embankment for years since nobody could figure out how to install them in an upright state. Finally a bright engineer Nicola Barratieri used a construct of levers and ropes to pull the columns up and stand them vertically at the Molo – the place where Piazza San Marco meets the Lagoon and the long-time official entrance to Venice. In exchange for figuring this out, the engineer received the right to install gambling tables between the columns, the space where gambling had since been permitted for centuries. Subsequently one of the columns was decorated with an ancient statue of St. Theodore, the former patron saint of Venice prior to St. Mark. St. Theodore holds a spear and kills a crocodile laying at his feet- a representation of a dragon that the Saint is said to have slain. The other column was graced with a statue of winged lion. The lion’s history is unclear but the researchers believe that it was likely originally created as a griffin for a cult of a pagan deity in the area of modern Turkey around year 300 BC. This figure of the ancient winged lion came to represent the might and power of Venice over the centuries, and became the undisputed symbol of the Venetian Empire.

In 1797 when Napoleon conquered Venice and put an end to the glorious independent Venetian Empire, he removed the lion from his column to underscore his win and ordered to take it to Paris, where it was installed across from Invalides during Napoleon’s reign. The lion was returned back to Venice after Napoleon’s Empire came to an end. However, in an unfortunate twist of fate the lion was dropped during transportation and broke into eighty four pieces. In an effort to restore the lion back to its former glory, the parts were quickly stuck together using very rough methods including staples, bolts, welding, fusion, and even cement. The only parts that survived undamaged were the head and the mane. The lion was proudly placed back on its column on Piazza San Marco, and since then periodic restorations try to make sure he looks his best despite the age. The last extensive restoration of the main Venetian Lion took place in 1985-91. After the restoration was complete, the Venetians showed the world how much they appreciate and value their lion by transferring the sculpture back to its pedestal on a gondola decorated with fresh flowers.

Winged Lion San Marco

1 thought on “Venice and The Lion of St. Mark: History, Mystery, and Glory

  1. Pingback: Day Eight: Assisi, Venice – Adnan's Italy Trip 2017

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