After the preparation and the expectations created by the atrium mosaics, entering the church is a symbolic arrival in the ‘promised land‘ of Abraham and the ancient patriarchs.
Around the portal in niches of various sizes are the mosaic figures of the Virgin and Child between eight apostles (upper register) and the 4 evangelists (lower register). These are part of the oldest mosaics, dating perhaps to the late 11th century when the great portal was the external entrance to the church, before the atrium was built. They are held to be the work of the “Greek” mosaicists recorded in ancient Venetian chronicles, a term that referred generically to those originating from the Byzantine area.
On crossing the portal and entering the sacred space of the basilica, the most striking aspect is certainly the golden mosaics covering the upper part of the architecture: this is due to the unity they give to the interior and to their oriental reference to the symbolic meaning of gold, the colour of the Divine.
The lunette above the main door immediately suggests a further and more precise interpretative key to this space.
The three figures recall the classical plan of a Deesis, the prayer of intercession which, in eastern iconography, depicts Christ Pantocrator between the Virgin Mother and John the Baptist, humanity’s two greatest intercessors. Here the Deesis is freely interpreted: the Baptist is replaced by St. Mark, patron of the church and city. The words from chapter 10 of the Gospel of St. John in the book held open by Jesus: “Ego sum ostium per me si quis introierit salvabitur et pasqua inveniet – I am the gate – whomsoever enters through me shall attain the pastures of salvation “, leads us to the recovery of forgotten meanings and values: the actual “gate” that leads to salvation is Christ himself, his Word communicated to us by means of his life.
The overall mosaics of the cupolas, the vaults and the walls should be read precisely as an illuminated manuscript of the gospel.
The central nucleus, which tells the story of Christian salvation, ranges from Messianic prophecies to the second coming – Christ the Judge at the end of the world – and its focal points are in the three domes of the nave.
The orientation of the basilica, with the presbytery facing East and the main door to the West in accordance with tradition, indicates the axis, the course of the sun along which the main nucleus of ancient mosaics should be followed. This itinerary allows us to read the story of salvation brought to man by Jesus, a sun that never sets.
THE CUPOLA OF THE PROPHETS
The story of salvation begins in the cupola of the Prophets with announcement of the Messiah by the prophets who, around the Virgin, display their prophecies.
On the apse bowl-vault the great Christ Pantocrator, lord of the universe, is a 1506 reworking of the original Byzantine type image by a renaissance master mosaicist.
The Pantocrator, from the apse bowl-vault, sends his Son into the world. He appears at the centre of the cupola amid myriads of stars with the scroll of the laws in his hands. In the concave interior, the Virgin and prophets. At the bottom the Virgin, in sumptuous oriental garments and her hands outstretched while awaiting the Word to descend upon her from the centre of the cupola is aligned with the thirteen prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Obadiah, Habakkuk Hosea, Jonah, Zephaniah, Haggai,Zechariah, Malachi, Solomon and David. Each one bears a scroll alluding to the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ and to the Last Judgement. In a central position and in an attitude of prayer Isaiah, pointing at the beardless youth in the middle of the cupola, pronounces the words: “Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son who shall be called Emanuel, God with us” and David, head of the royal dynasty of Israel, dressed in the sumptuous garments of the Byzantine emperor, proclaims the royal nature of the child to be born to her: “the fruit of your loins shall I place on my throne “.
At the base of the cupola on the four spandrels beneath are the symbols of the four Evangelists: the lion (St. Mark), the ox (St. Luke), the angel (St. Matthew) and the eagle (St. John).
The meaning of their presence is made clear by the accompanying inscription (“what was said of Christ through obscure allusions (by the prophets) was to be made clear by the Evangelists, and through them God made himself known to humanity “).
The same iconographic theme of the presbytery is repeated on the walls of the nave: ten mosaics set in precious marbles, splendid 13th century creations. On the right wall the “pinakes” portray the Virgin and on the left Christ Emanuel, surrounded respectively by four prophets. If the linearity and thrust of the individual figures are still lacking there is a new aspect in the plastic significance taken on by the individual personages due precisely to the line and draping of their clothes which instead of dematerialising their volumes actually exploit them.
A logical and liturgical succession is seen in the Epiphany cycle on the arch above the iconostasis, functioning as a link between the presbytery and the central Ascension dome.
Here prophecies begin to come true with scenes illustrating the Angel’s Annunciation to Mary, the Adoration of the Magi. The Presentation at the Temple, the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and the Transfiguration. These mosaics were redone to cartoons by Jacopo Tintoretto at the end of the 16th century. There is another mediaeval version of the Baptism of Jesus in the baptistery, reminiscent of the great richness of Byzantine icon modules .
On the walls and vaults of the two transepts there are numerous images of Christ’s actions in comforting the sick, the suffering and sinners.
The gospel stories of Christ regarding the Sundays after Epiphany are more or less complete in the mosaics at the two sides of the north transept: The Marriage in Cana, The Profaners of the Temple, The Ten Lepers, Christ and the Adulteress, The Storm Calmed, The Lame Man Healed at the Sacrificial Pool, The Centurion Before Christ, The Woman Touching the Hem of His Garment, The Healing of the Dropsical Man, The Healing of the Leper, The Miraculous Catch of Fish in the Lake of Genezareth, The Resurrection of Nain’s Widow’s Son, Christ and the Canaanite Woman. On the sides of the south (or left) transept, there are the Multiplying of the Loaves, Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Christ Healing the Man Blind from Birth, Christ and Zaccheus, Christ Healing the Lame Man on his Bed, St. Peter Walking on the Water, The Second Multiplying of the Loaves, Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Christ Transferring Demons to the Gadarene Swine, Christ Healing the Hunchbacked Woman.
Many of these scenes were redone in the 16th and 17th centuries.
THE STORIES OF CHRIST
Continuing to the central cupola there are the concluding events of the life of Christ with the rites of Holy Week on the south vault: the Temptations of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper (mosaics dating to the first half of the 12th century and among the best preserved) and the Washing of Feet. On the west vault there are Judas’ Kiss and the Verdict of Pilate, the Crucifixion, the Women at the Sepulchre, the Descent into Limbo, the Meeting with the Women and the Meeting with Thomas.
On the wall of the right aisle there is a great panel of the Prayer in the Garden of Olives. It is a 13th century addition and one of the masterpieces of the entire mosaic complex. The hands of three masters are recognisable. To each is attributed one of the three scenes, dominated by a rocky landscape featuring flowers and trees of extraordinary beauty, narrating Christ’s painful and solitary prayer while the indifference of his friends is expressed in the sleeping group to the left.
THE ASCENSION CUPOLA
In the centre of the basilica, at the intersection with the transept, the dome celebrates the concluding mystery of the life of Jesus: his Ascension to heaven.
The decoration of the Ascension cupola, dating to the second half of the 12th century, is the mosaic masterpiece of St. Mark’s and the heart of the church’s spiritual message. It is considered to be the best mosaic expression in the whole church for structure, quality and preservation.
In the starry circle of the centre Christ, seated on a rainbow, is drawn heavenwards by four flying angels. Below, in a great concentric circle, the Virgin between two angels and the 12 apostles are gazing upwards, alternated by plants of various forms and sizes, suggesting the messianic environment of the mount of olives where Luke situates the episode of the Ascension.
Farther below, between the windows, there are sixteen female figures in a dancing sequence personifying the Virtues and Beatitudes: Hope, Faith, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, Humility, Gentleness, Contrition, Abstinence, Mercy, Patience, Chastity, Modesty, Constancy and Charity, this last crowned and in royal garments, “mother of all the virtues” as suggested by the inscription surrounding her.
Here we have the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity), the four moral virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance) and then another nine virtues that are an integral part, in accordance with the mediaeval concept, of the four moral virtues. If the Ascension scene has an illustrious Byzantine precedent in the cupola of St. Sophia’s in Salonika (11th century) the setting of the sixteen Virtues is absolutely Venetian.
On the spandrels the four Evangelists are writing the beginning of their Gospels: each one is schematised from the side in his study and the four symbols already seen in the presbytery cupola spandrels are lacking. The two cupolas are correlated inasmuch as in the presbytery the Evangelists merely outline salvation whereas in the Ascension cupola it is openly manifested. Each Evangelist holds his own Gospel open at the first words.
Beneath, the four biblical rivers – Gihon, Pison, Tigris, Euphrates – pour their waters on the community of the faithful, here too with clear baptismal symbology.
The Greek master who, with his assistants, created this cycle has been defined as the “agitato style” master. There could be no more suitable definition of this mosaicist who, in the creation of these scenes of the Death, Resurrection and Ascent, expresses all the dramatic tension and renewal of humanity and the universe. He manipulates the line in a myriad of curves that delineate the faces and create highly complicated folds that wind in broad spirals, spreading out into elegant fan-shaped drapery and extending in an extremely harmonious fluttering that recalls Hellenic solutions
The colours used are the most precious, all obtained by mixing the vitreous paste with lapis lazuli, copper, gold, silver or iron; and when the chromatic element and the luminosity of the enamels were not enough to render immaterial and transfigure an image, highlighting was carried out with gold, silver and whites. While the human faces of the apostles are highlighted in black, those of Christ, the Virgin and the angels have bright highlighting that gives the impression of a divine light emanating from the faces themselves.
THE PENTECOST CUPOLA
The next cupola, the Pentecost, celebrates and glorifies the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. On the two vaults at the sides, the martyrdoms of the apostles: the one on the right is still intact in the mediaeval version while the one on the left was redone during the 17th century. These and other replacements were made necessary by the mosaics falling off as a result of various causes documented in ancient chronicles (dampness, fires, earthquakes).
While the setting of the Ascension cupola resolves into a unity of motifs converging towards Christ who rises to heaven at the peak, the Pentecost cupola is resolved in an emanation of twelve rays of silver light from the dove of the Holy Spirit above the throne. The rays fall in the form of a red flame on the heads of the twelve apostles who are seated on chairs. Between the sixteen windows below are depictions of the peoples among whom the apostles, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, spread the word of Christ.
On the four spandrels beneath the cupola there are four angels of unparalleled beauty: the elegance of their highly stylised forms, created by a complex play of lines, and their chromatic delicacy, are typical features of the most refined Greek masters.
The apostles stand out for their monumentality, for the expressionism of their faces (accentuated by the play of lines already noted in the presbytery cupola prophets and the central cupola apostles), for the variants of their positions on the thrones, for the decorative richness of the drapery and for the alternation of colours on their tunics and cloaks .
The Pentecost, which with the descent of the Holy Spirit completes the Trinity after the Father (Prophets) and Son (Ascension), is the masterpiece of another great artist working in St. Mark’s in the fourth and fifth decades of the 12th century. Notwithstanding the 15th and 19th century restorations the beauty of this cycle remains unaltered in the preciousness of its mosaic materials (gold, silver, and masterfully cut and laid stone tesserae) and in the originality of its compositional layout which is absolutely coherent with that of the other two: in the first, the prophets awaiting the advent of the Son; in the second the convergent motion of the apostles towards Christ ascending at the peak, and then the motion outwards from the centre in which the Holy Spirit radiates its light on the apostles.
Absolute iconographic and compositional unity then, over a space of time estimable at three to, at the most, four decades for completion of a grandiose programme, fruit of cooperation between three main masters – with the collaboration of a highly skilled team – who developed different aspects of their Greco-Byzantine culture in accordance with the opportunity presented by the iconographic theme to which they had to give representational form. The Ascension offered a springboard for the display of special skill in giving movement to the figures, all of them outstretched and almost levitating towards Christ ascending to heaven. The Pentecost gave the chance to create light effects (silver rays on a gold background) of great impact and preciousness, while the awaiting of the Son was an opportunity to create figures in all their majestic prophetic intelligence.
The 12th century mosaicists were Greek, but in the 13th there was collaboration between Constantinople masters and those who had been trained in Venice.
The Venetian conquest of Constantinople with the Crusades in 1204 meant that the Lords had to bring the splendour of the ducal chapel into line with the new role of ruler of a quarter and a half of the Empire .
THE APOCAPLYPSE AND LAST JUDGEMENT VAULTS
Above the entrance the Apocalypse and Last Judgement vaults, the latter also visible from the atrium through the “well” opening, with renaissance mosaics largely redone in the 19th century, represent the point of arrival of the spiritual message contained in the mosaics with scenes from John’s apocalyptic visions and with the Last Judgement.
The two vaults, together with other zones, were subject to considerable structural intervention involving difficult restoration work that continued over almost a century, from the first half of the 19th to the 30’s of the 20th