The Myth of St. Mark

The myth that is frequently referenced to in the decoration of the Basilica of San Marco is the finding of St. Mark’s body and the continued reaffirmation of his relationship to Venice. The relics of St. Mark are documented as arriving in Venice in 828.[1] The narrative of the myth is told in the Translatio, a document that has an unclear development but dates to 1050 and introduced the story of how St. Mark came to Venice. The Translatio also proclaimed the divine right of Venetians to hold Mark’s relics.[2] The myth begins with two Venetian merchants, Tribunus and Rusticus, who removed the body of St. Mark from the saints tomb in Alexandria.

Gentile Bellini and Giovanni Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria, 1507, Milan, Italy (Image from Artstor).

Two Alexandrian monks Stauracius and Theodorus were acting as custodians to the relic. The story continues, in a manner to justify the commercial connection between Venetian Christians and Muslims in Alexandria, that the ship of Tribunus and Rusticus had been blown off their original course causing them to land in Alexandria.[3] This is incongruous to the Venetian mentality of the 11th century that did not seem to mind who they traded with as long as the Venetian state benefitted in the end. The merchants discovered that the Khalif of Alexandria was planning on destroying the relics and the church the relics were housed in. Tribunus and Rusticus then persuaded the monks to allow them to take the relics thereby saving them. The monks and the merchants swapped Mark’s body with that of St. Claudia.

The Stealing of St. Mark's Body, Chapel of San Clemente, Basilica of San Marco, 12th century, (Image provided by UMW Slide Library).

Then they hid St. Mark’s body in a container on board their ship and placed pork on top of the container to stop Muslim Guards from finding the stolen relic. During the journey back to Venice the merchants experienced miracles. These miracles took the form of a quick return home, the saving of a sceptic in the city of Umago in Istria from a demon and St. Mark saving the merchant’s ship from wrecking during a storm.[4] Another alleged miracle occurred when St. Mark’s body was received in Venice. While the body of the saint was being brought to the palace of the Doge, Justinian Partecipacius, the relic became to heavy for the clergy members to carry whereupon the Doge promised to build a church for them, which would eventually become San Marco.[5]

[1] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 8.

[2] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 8.

[3] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 8.

 [4]Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 9. Otto Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 200.

 [5] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 9.