The high altar retable of St. Mark's - the Pala d'Oro - is universally
considered to be the most precious and refined expression of Byzantine
genius and the cult of light, understood as the raising of man towards
God. It glorifies the evangelist and contains his relics.
Pala derives from the Latin palla, cloth, sometimes decorated with images
of saints and used to cover the altar or embellish its background during
the church service. These cloths were then replaced by gold or silver
- frequently found at least in Venetian lagoon area churches - hence the
name Pala d'Oro (gold) or d'argento (silver). The most famous of all is
the one in St. Mark's, ordered from Constantinople by the doge Ordelaffo
Falier in 1102 and completed in 1105.
It consists of 2 parts: the Pala d'Oro proper and the wooden container
Since its origins it has been opened only during liturgical celebrations
in the Basilica, a tradition that continues today. The rest of the time
it is covered by another altar-piece known as "ferial", a painting on
wood. The oldest of these was done by Paolo Veneziano and his sons in
1343-1345 depicting stories of St. Mark and other saints. It is now in
the Church Museum. The present day one, the work of a late Gothic master,
dates to the first half of the 15th century and may be admired on the
rear side of the retable.
In the centre of the precious piece the majestic figure of Christ blessing
is dominant, surrounded by the Evangelists holding open the book in which
the words of holy scripture are replaced by gems, thus highlighting the
preciousness of the word. Beneath Christ, Virgin Mary praying and, at
her sides, the doge Ordelaffo Falier and empress Irene.
Above Christ, the etimasia, the preparation of the throne of the Last
Judgement, for God's second coming to earth, between two cherubim and
two archangels. Above: the Crucifixion.
At the sides, in three registers one above the other, there are twelve
prophets, twelve apostles and twelve archangels. Aligned above are almost
all the celebrations of the Byzantine Church: from the left, the Annunciation,
the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, the Baptism of Jesus, the
Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Descent into Limbo, the Resurrection,
the Incredulity of Thomas, the Ascension and Pentecost.
At the sides in a vertical position there are ten small pictures: on the
left the salient events in the life of St. Mark and, on the right, episodes
relating to his martyrdom in Alexandria and the transfer of his body to
Venice. The great upper frieze from one of the three churches in the monastery
of Christ Pantocrator in Constantinople shows the archangel Michael in
the centre and six panels with Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, the Descent
into Limbo, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, Pentecost and the Virgin Sleeping.
The altar panel is completed by numerous enamelled medallions portraying
saints worshipped by the Venetians.
Three phases may be identified in the history of this precious work:
- The lower part dates to the time of doge Ordelaffo Falier (1102-1118).
The enamels on the side frames, with stories of St. Mark, and on the upper
frame with six deacons and the Christological celebrations of the liturgical
calendar date to the same period, as does the central Pantocrator group.
- The upper part belongs to the second phase. The series of six Byzantine
celebrations and the archangel Michael in the centre perhaps arrived in
Venice from Constantinople after 1204.
- The third intervention occurred between 1343-1345 when, at doge Dandolo's
behest, two Venetian goldsmiths were entrusted with the task of framing
the whole within a Romanesque arch (upper part) and a Gothic arch (lower
part), and distributing the 1.927 precious stones and gems.