The Treasure of St. Mark’s consists of 283 pieces in gold, silver, glass and other precious materials from various sources.
It is what remains of the ancient treasure of the Republic plundered after 1797 and further impoverished by the need to sell precious stones and pearls between 1815 and 1819 for restoration of the church. The most interesting nucleus consists of objects brought to Venice from Constantinople after 1204.
For the most part they are liturgical chalices, bowls and patens in semi-precious stone mounted on Byzantine enamelled gold-work.
There are also late-antique vases in glass and semi-precious stone and bowls of Islamic origin. Lastly there is a nucleus of western objects, some of them Venetian filigree.
The church’s Treasure is kept in the ancient rooms between the church and the ducal palace, accessed by means of a door in the south transept embellished with a 13th century mosaic which, in memory of the fire of 1231, depicts two angels bearing the reliquary of the Cross, miraculously left intact.
The small vestibule leads, on the left, to the sanctuary and, on the right, to the actual Treasure. In eight niches in the sanctuary walls there are numerous precious reliquaries containing the relics of saints that were gathered from Constantinople to the Holy Land and from places outside the eastern Mediterranean basin. The Treasure consists of an overall 283 pieces in gold, silver, glass and other precious materials.
The oldest nucleus is a part of the booty brought to Venice from Constantinople between 1204 and 1261 after the Venetian conquest. 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. To these may be added late-antique vases in glass and semi-precious stone and bowls of Islamic origin, all of great interest. Lastly there is a nucleus of western objects, some of them Venetian filigree.
Other pieces – gifts from popes, European princes or the doges themselves – were added subsequently.
When the Republic fell in 1797 part of the Treasure was pillaged. What was saved was returned to the church in 1798, but between 1815 and 1819 precious stones and pearls were sold to pay for restorations.
The Treasure is divided into four sections:
– Objects from Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, including two beautiful lamps in rock crystal sculpted in the form of fish and two amphorae with handles in the form of animals, each one obtained from a single block of precious oriental agate;
– Objects by Byzantine goldsmiths dating to the centuries around the year 1000: chalices and patens in semi-precious stone with mountings in gold and silver ornamented with cloisonnï¿½ enamels, also present in the two portable icons with the image of the Archangel Michael;
– Objects of Islamic art (9th – 10th century): worthy of mention is the splendid bowl in turquoise glass with stylised animals in relief and mounting in gilded silver, set with semi-precious stones;
– Objects of western origin: including the famous perfume-brazier in the form of a small building on a central plan with five cupolas, as well as many other pieces in which filigree work is predominant.
Mention must also be made of the two altar-facings on the south wall: one (late 13th century) belonging to the church and dedicated to St. Mark, still used today on the high altar for great celebrations, and the other (15th century) a gift from pope Gregory XII, originating from the cathedral of San Pietro di Castello.
The last precious item is the throne-reliquary of St. Mark in calcareous alabaster. Of perhaps 6th century Alexandrian manufacture it came to Venice from Grado whose patriarch, Primigenio, had received it as a gift from the emperor Heraclius in 630. The symbols of the four evangelists are clearly legible on the sides and, on the backrest, there is the lamb beneath a tree from which flow the four rivers of paradise in accordance with a vision of the Apocalypse.
The most significant pieces of the Treasure were exhibited on the altar of St. Mark’s during the main liturgical celebrations to elicit the admiration of foreign embassies and visitors and to lend the impression of magnificence to the cult of St. Mark.