Skip to content

Christmas in The Basilica of St Marks

December 29, 2011

It has got to be the most glorious ecclesiastical space. Gold is the color of God and it unites the universe above the worshippers. The mosaics on the sequence of vaults and domes above us tell the whole story. Christ Pantocrator – triumphant and ruling enthroned – dominates all. He is surrounded by that supporting dramatis personae invented by Catholicism with little or no Biblical support: the Virgin and saints. With the Jewish Bible – Moses and Abraham – shackled and born like triumph in a Roman procession, the books of the Jews reinterpreted as a precursor to the Gospels only.

Wonderful art as propaganda.

The iconostasis as bronze statues crosses our vision, bronze in contrast to to the swimming gold and multi-colored mosaics.

(Photograph: MP O'Brien)

The system that underpins the decoration is this: that the godhead is in the domes – God’s promise of a savior, Christ ascending after the Resurrection, the throne with the open book of the Gospels and so on. That is, the culmination. Below, facts connected with this crowning event are distributed on the walls. The side walls are devoted to the history of the church and its major saints. The ground level is devoted to the everyday saints closest to the lives of the ordinary people. All links us on Earth, the Christian community here, with the world of the saints, apostles and Christ.

“…a continual succession of crowded imagery, one picture passing into another, as in a dream…the mazes of interwoven lines and changeful pictures lead at last to the Cross, lifted and carved in every place and upon every stone…but conspicuous most of all on the great rood that crosses the church before the altar, raised in bright blazonry against the shadow of the apse.” So wrote John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice. He starts his book my emphasizing that because Venice is an island everything here is brick “with encrustations”. This makes this triumph of Byzantine architecture, this most splendid ecclesiastical interior in Christendom, totally awe-inspiring.

  1. December 29, 2011 3:24 am

    If it’s wonderful art, I wonder if it needs the qualification ‘as propaganda’? Most art is pushing its life-view.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 29, 2011 6:04 am

      Some more than most. How would you judge Soviet art treating Lenin the way baroque art treats Mary? I will see the biggest exhibit on Socialist Realism held outside the Soviet in the next few days.

      • December 31, 2011 4:24 am

        I guess I should have split a few more hairs. Much art betrays its point of view, is unselfconscious; some pushes.

        I guess I’m also thinking a lot lately about art that can console, reconcile, affirm, etc… and still be great art (eg Bach).

  2. Vrasidas permalink
    December 29, 2011 7:29 am

    every work of civilisation is at the same time a work of Barbarism (Walter Benjamin) Half of the treasures of St Mark’s were stollen from Hagia Sophia in 1204!

  3. December 29, 2011 8:27 am

    The art of St Marks is as overwhelming as the task of trying to describe it in words! Despite its magnificence, I admit that the sheer volume of decoration can make me feel strangely claustrophobic.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: