The Lion of Saint Mark in Venice: symbol of magnificence and power
The winged lion is an icon that spans the centuries
The Lion of Saint Mark is a winged lion that symbolically represents Saint Mark the Evangelist, patron of Venice. It is a symbol used to give an immediate and unique sign of identity and power. It doesn’t have an official or political meaning, but only a popular and religious origin.
It is the emblem of the lagoon city, of the ancient Serenissima Republic, of the municipality, of the province and of the Veneto region. It appears in the coat of arms of the Italian Navy therefore in the flag of the Merchant Navy. It is present in the squares and historical buildings of all the cities that have been dominated by the Serenissima Republic, on the Venetian badges of civil, military and religious use, in the flags and in the coins.
The Christian symbolism comes from an ancient legend
Mark was sailing toward Alexandria of Egypt. In a stormy evening, he found shelter in one of the few fishermen huts which were rising in Venice, probably in Rialto. After a frugal dinner he fell asleep. An angel, represented by a winged lion, appeared to him in a dream exclaiming a Latin sentence:
«Pax tibi Marce Evangelista meus, hic requiescet corpus tuum»
(Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist. Here will rest your body)
In the morning he told the dream to the fishermen. Than he sailed to continue the trip toward Egypt. His mission was that to convert the infidels and to create one of the most ancient and important centers of the Christianity of those times. Even if there are no reliable sources, it seems he died in Alexandria.
The lion preannounced that Mark would have found rest and veneration in Venice
The legend was handed down for centuries from father to son. Through the years, the Venetians felt in duty to return Saint Mark to Venice. In 828 the relics stolen in Alexandria of Egypt from two Venetian merchants were welcomed in Venice from the doge who justified the feat. In order to welcome the relics, the first basilica dedicated to Saint Mark was consecrated. From that moment he became patron.
His representation as winged lion became symbol of the lagoon city
The winged lion and the politics
The possession of Saint Mark relics had a strong impact on the citizenship that feeling sure and protected developed a strong devotion. It also brought important diplomatic and political benefits that have been useful to Venice and to its image on the international scene. In late 13th century, the lion acquired a political value: it appeared in the official documents of the Republic and was used as seal on the boundary stones.
In the Christian symbolism and in the art history the lion represents Saint Mark
The winged lion already appears in the Tetramorph
In the Tetramorph, ancient iconographic representation that means four figures, Christ is surrounded by four living beings, with the features of lion, of calf then became bull, of man and of eagle, winged and with halo. In 180 after Christ, Saint Ireneo, bishop of Lyon, interpreted these four symbols as the four Evangelists and at the end of the 4th century, Saint Girolamo definitely assigned an animal to each.
The lion, that is well-known as symbol of power, pride, magnificence, nobility and courage was associated to Mark because it emphasizes the Resurrection power, the majesty and the regality of Christ and the characteristics of his Gospel. Mark in fact, in order to describe Giovanni Battista who announces to the men the arrival of Jesus, began his book with the citation “the voice of one that shouts in the desert” that makes people imagine to the roar of a lion.
The Aurea legend of Jacopo da Varazze
Jacopo da Varazze, Dominican friar, wrote the “Aurea legend”, a Medieval collection of biographies of the saints that gave great emphasis to Saint Mark life. He induced the Republic to adopt a symbol to remember him and to inspire patriotic, pacific and religious emotions.
Many researchers date back to late 12th century the figure of the winged lion as official symbol of the Republic of Venice together with the welcome motto “Pax tibi Marce Evangelista meus”.
As symbol of the Serenissima Republic, this animal still today fascinates the Venetians but not only. It is considered symbol of power and regality.
Many are the commemorative and ornamental sculptures of the winged lions that are confused with the general lions. They are situated in front of the main entrance of the villas, on the pillars of the gates, in the gardens or inside the residences.
There are a lot of anecdotes regarding sculptors and works, we continue to tell them in order to introduce you the fascinating marble world. One of the most curious is that of the butter lion realized by Antonio Canova.
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