The story of how Saint Mark’s relics came to Venice is a remarkable one, and it has been the subject of various works of art over centuries. In Venice a worthy tomb was erected in a church named for him: St. Mark's Cathedral. The relics of St Mark were brought to Venice through an adventurous travel, that definitely made the Saint closely associated to the city, besides giving enormous prestige to the Venetians over centuries.
Image: "Translation of st. Mark`s relics", detail from an 11th century mosaic in St Mark's Basilica.
Source: By anonimus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After his death, the relics of St Mark the Evangelist were kept by the Coptic Christian Church of Alexandria at the Canopus (Kanopos in Greek, and Aboukir in modern Arabic), an Ancient Egyptian coastal town, located on the western bank at the mouth of the Nile Delta, and long being the main port in Egypt for Greek trade before the foundation of Alexandria. The site lies now in the eastern outskirts of modern-day Alexandria, about 25 km from its centre. In year 310 AD a church was built over the relics of St Mark. The tradition of Mark’s martyrdom at Alexandria spread all over the Roman Empire, especially in Italy, and many Christians travelled to Egypt to visit the Evangelist’s tomb in Alexandria. The church was burnt during the Arab invasion in 644 AD, and only when a sort of balance with the Arab ruling class was re-established, the patriarchs of Alexandria Agathon (662-680 AD) and John of Samanhud (680-689 AD), were allowed to rebuild the church. In 820 AD, when the Muslim Arabs had established their rule in Egypt and started oppressing the Christian community in Alexandria, the local priests feared Saint Mark’s relics might be destroyed.
In year 828 AD two Venetian merchants, Buono from Malamocco and Rustico from Torcello, landed in Alexandria to do their business. During the visit to St Mark's church, they heard from the guardians of the temple, the monk Stauratius and the priest Theodore, that the church itself was likely to be damaged by the Muslims, since the governor of Alexandria had decided to get materials from the existing Christian churches to build new mosques. The merchants immediately offered to save the relics of St Mark's, and, in spite of the doubts and fears of the religious, acted quickly: they took Mark's body out of the sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud, replacing it with the one of another and less eminent saint, St Claudia, which was located in a nearby church.
Image: "The Venetians Asking the Deliverance of St Mark's Corpse", circa 1846, by Mihály Kovács (1818-1892), Hungarian painter
Source: Mihály Kovács [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mark's relics were secretly translated in a cart, set in wicker baskets filled with cabbage leaves and a layer of pork. On the way to the harbour a miracle happened: an intense bouquet of roses scattered from the church of St Mark over the city streets. The local Christians rushed there to find out the cause of this phenomenon. But they found Mark's relics appearantly resting at the same place inside the church, so they returned home. In order to mislead the Muslim guards, the merchants declared that it was a load of pork. This was done to prevent the guards from inspecting the ship's cargo too closely, since Muslims are not allowed to touch pork meat. This way the Venetians managed to bring the relics aboard and set sails for Venice.
Image: "The Deliverance of St Mark's Corpse", circa 1846, by Mihály Kovács (1818-1892), Hungarian painter
Source: Mihály Kovács [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The journey was not easy however: the merchants faced a storm, then their ship ran aground on a shoal and underwent a shipwreck, but they managed to survive thanks to the apparitions of the Saint, who guided them to safety. Finally, on January 31, 828 AD, the relics of Mark sailed into the Venetian lagoon, landing on San Pietro di Castello (formerly known as Olivolo), an island part of the Castello sestiere (district), and linked to the main islands of Venice by two bridges. The island was the site of a castle from at least the 6th century AD, while in the 7th century, it became the seat of a Bishop. Giustiniano Particiaco (?-829), the eleventh Doge of Venice from 825 to his death, built a small chapel in the Doge's Palace to house St Mark's remains: the first Basilica di San Marco in Venice was founded.
The news about the translation of the Evangelist's relics in Venice spread quickly and brought great advantages to the city, increasing its prestige and wealth worldwide. Pilgrims from everywhere started flocking to Venice, and the Venetians themselves felt a sense of great security and protection. As a result, it was decided to start the construction of a larger church, which was completed in year 832 under doge Giovanni I (?-836), brother and successor of Giustiniano Particiaco, who, not having sons by his wife, had recalled him from Constantinople and appointed him to continue the construction of the new church.
But again another time of troubles began: the Basilica was burnt in 976 during the popular uprising against doge Candiano IV (959-976): he took shelter in the ducal palace, but was besieged by the rebels and did not escape the flames that destroyed both the church and the Doge's Palace. The following year doge Pietro Orseolo I (928-987 AD) let rebuild the church by his own cost. The current Basilica, called 'The Third St Mark', was founded in 1063, under doge Domenico Contarini (?-1071), and completed with many decorations of mosaics and marbles by his successor, Domenico Selvo (?-1084). In 1071 the new doge stated that Venice should have St Mark as a new saint patron, replacing St Theodore, and so Mark became the patron of the Basilica and the city. Not by chance the two monolithic columns on St Mark’s square, in front of the Grand Canal and next to the Doge's Palace, feature the winged lion of St Mark and St Theodore slaying a dragon.
When finally the inner part of the Basilica was completed, on April 25, 1094, a great ceremony of its consecration took place, but the relics of St Mark were hidden so accurately that after the death of the doge no one could find them again. All searches were unsuccessful. It was decided to start a time of fasting and prayer involving the new doge Vitale Faliero (?-1095/6), the Patriarch of Venice, and all the Venetians, to invoke the divine help. Three months after a miracle happened: on June 25, 1094, at the end of the Holy Mass, the Saint's arm appeared from a pillar of the church indicating the position of the body. The marble cladding of that pillar was broken and below there was a box containing the relics. At the same time a sweet fragrance of roses spread throughout the Basilica. On October 8, 1094, the newfound remains of St Mark were definitely placed in a sarcophagus in the crypt of the Basilica. On the right transept there is a mosaic illustrating this story.
Image “The Finding of the body of St Mark or Rediscovery of the body of Saint Mark”, 1562-1566?, by Tintoretto (born Jacopo Comin, 1518-1594), Italian painter of the Renaissance school.
Source: Tintoretto [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons