Like most of the ancient churches, St. Mark’s Basilica of Venice too has its legends. Built in the eleventh century, its design mixes eastern and western building styles in a unique way. Here the lines between elegant architecture and works of master craftsmen blur, as both the exterior and interior of the Church serve to delight our sense of aesthetics.
The original St. Mark’s Church was situated inside the complex of the Doge’s Palace and was constructed in 828. It was built to house the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, which were supposedly stolen by Venetian merchants from Alexandria, Egypt several years earlier.
Considered one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture in the world, the Basilica di San Marco is known for its opulent design and gilded interior mosaics, and is referred to as “Church of Gold”.
The exterior of the basilica is quite ornate and has been added to over the centuries. Technically, the exterior is divided into three registers – lower, upper, and domes. The lower consists of five arched portals – the center one slightly larger – surrounded by marble columns. Large bronze doors lead into the narthex. Above the lateral portals are mosaics depicting the stories of St. Mark’s relics; the one on the left is the oldest one and depicts the St. Mark’s Basilica as it looked like in the middle of the twelfth century.
Above the large central window is the Winged Lion – symbol of Venice – and on the central balcony are statues of Greek Horses, installed in 1254. The horses were originally displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople but are now in the basilica’s museum. The ones on the facade are replicas.
The interior of the basilica is laid out in a Greek cross design and each arm has a central nave with side aisle. Its interior is even more spectacular than the building’s exterior. The magnificent marble floors are arranged in a geometric pattern with interspersed animal designs. About 8,000 square meters of gilded mosaics cover the walls and ceilings.
The canopy – or baldacchino – over the high altar is known as the Pala d’Oro, the Golden Pall. It is a panel of gold decorated with precious gems, sitting on columns decorated with 11th century reliefs. It is said to include 1300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, and rubies and topazes. Byzantine goldsmiths were hired at the end of the tenth century to complete the work on this portion of the basilica, much of which is now protected by glass.