There are three iconostases in St, Mark’s: in the presbytery and in the chapels of St. Peter and St. Clement. The last two are small and bear figures of female saints.
The most important of the three is undoubtedly the Gothic iconostasis which separates the nave from the presbytery and which replaced one of the 13th century. The work of the Venetian brothers Pierpaolo and Jacobello dalle Masegne, it consists of 14 beautiful statues in white marble depicting the 12 Apostles with the Virgin and St. Mark and is dated towards the end of the 14th century.
From the centre of the church, beneath the Ascension cupola, one can clearly see certain architectonic modifications and sculptural additions. Outstanding among these is the Gothic iconostasis with its 14 beautiful statues at the sides of the Crucifix, the work of the Venetian brothers Pierpaolo and Jacobello dalle Masegne, completed by the smaller iconostases in the chapels of St. Peter and St. Clement with figures of female saints.
In churches of Byzantine tradition the iconostasis is a rood-screen, usually in wood or marble, separating nave and presbytery, and takes its name from the fact that it bears icons. Since the icons are wholly lacking in the Venetian work it would be more correct to call it a ‘column transenna’.
The central part separating the presbytery from the church bears an inscription with the date 1394 and the signatures of Pierpaolo and Jacobello dalle Masegne who, between 1380 and 1410, had considerable influence both in Venice and on the mainland.
The St. Mark’s iconostasis is the only work, intact in its original state, with the unquestioned signature of the Dalle Masegne brothers.
The presbytery iconostasis replaced a 13th century one of which the lower arches still remain in their original place. The latter, according to the reconstruction, had no structural similarity with the present one. The earlier iconostasis, dismantled, was decorated with reliefs and it is probable that sculptural decoration was chosen in memory of it.
The present day iconostasis consists of 12 Apostles with the Virgin and St. Mark. Each figure has an inscription on the base with the names in Latin (St. Mathias, St. Phillip, St. Thaddeus, St. Andrew, St. James the Elder, St. Peter, the Virgin, Christ Crucified, St. John, St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Bartholomew, St. James, St. Simon, St. Thomas).
The individual figures cannot be identified without reservations since the bases have been changed in some cases.
The sculptures are in white marble but have a dark brown surface which probably derives from smoke from candles placed between the figures. The edges of their garments have considerable remains of the original polychrome which repeats the rhombus motif found in the architectonic part of the iconostases.
The iconography as a whole recalls that of the iconostasis of the old St. Peter’s church in Rome featuring, next to the apostles, several female saints. This reference is certainly not a random one and bears witness to the Venetians’ intention to compete with the church of the Apostle of Rome.
The three parts of the St. Mark’s iconostasis appear equal in their structure whereas the style is profoundly different. Here we offer the possibility of identifying the style of the two brothers.
One presumes that Jacobello did the figures in the central part between 1393 and 1394 with his assistants while Pierpaolo later, with his pupils, did the sculptures at the sides.
The ten figures at the sides of the iconostasis have also been attributed to a less talented helper, and certain stylistic affinities with the works of Nino Pisano have been pointed out, but no one has ever seriously questioned attribution to Pierpaolo. Attribution of the fourteen figures of the central iconostasis to Jacobello does not of course exclude the participation of helpers who had to prepare the marble blocks, rough-hewing them in accordance with Jacobello’s drawings.
This may have led to unpleasant surprises, even to emergency measures. Thus for example in the St. John the Evangelist the too narrow right shoulder might have been the result of a mistake.
If however the work is considered overall, defects of this nature seem of secondary importance. Moreover there is clear intention to make all the figures appear to be the work of the same artist .
The Apostles and the Virgin do not look either ahead or at the cross. Their heads are slightly turned aside and each person seems to be closed within himself. This notwithstanding, their turning and bowing gives rise to the formation of couples, a fine invention that results in a rhythmical grouping.
The relative isolation of the individual figures is expressed not only in their faces but also in their attitudes. Jacobello’s figures are set more firmly on the ground and there are rarely harmonies of borders, folds, outline and attitude. Sometimes Jacobello drapes the garments so close to the body as to create “islands” delimited by folded ridges, often forming an oval. Only in the second quarter of the 15th century was something similar found in Venice. But in spite of the close fitting garments the body in Jacobello’s sculptures is not seen as an organic whole and is concealed in the drapery so that only rarely does one see articulations.
In the overall figure the faces whose expression has been drawn by Jacobello carry greater weight while those of Pierpaolo are usually more serene. These faces close up are more reminiscent of mid 14th century Venetian painting and mosaics than of other sculptural works.