Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Pax Tibi Marce, Evangelista Meus

The flag of St Mark, flying proudly on the terrace, proclaims my onomastico - my own Saint's day!

I was last in Venice with a Cathedral pilgrimage in 2003, when we went to northern Italy to look at the Byzantine roots of our own Cathedral. Venice creates a knotted fist of excitement in my stomach; its images are so powerful, so beautiful, so evocative. I've been lucky enough to wander its streets in lazy summers, explore the lagoon on brittle winter days, and drink in the giddy excess of Carnevale.

My love affair was, however, severely tested that 2003 pilgrimage, for as we approached the St Mark's Basin, where once the Doge's gorgeous state barge was once moored, the heavens opened monsoon fashion. The fragile tracery of the Doge's place disappeared into a grey blur, and our pilgrim group disappeared into a nearby shop for a mass purchase of umbrellas, thoughtfully supplied by the retailer at three times the normal price.
Water was besieging us from below, as well. It was the notorious acqua alta, when a combination of high tide and scirroco wind drives the waters of the lagoon over the threshold of the city, and the sea floods into St Mark's square. Considering that this occurs more than fifty times each year, the Venetian solution is still curiously makeshift - duckboards raised on tressles, providing a precarious and lengthy passage above the icy water. The four Roman Emperors set into the corner of the basilica seemed to huddle against the weather and rising tide. Nor was the sea held back by the hand of God - it flooded into St Mark's, and access to the nave was over a temporary bridge across the flooded narthex. Whatever problems we face at Westminster, five inches of sea water is not one of them.

Nevertheless, once inside, the magic works, the jaw drops, and we are transported to heaven. As at Westminster, it is the space that overwhelms, the massive volume of air seems as solid as the monumental masonry. The lower parts of the wall are encased in marble, familiar to us, of course, in our Cathedral's own Byzantine decoration. But above, where we know darkened brickwork, the domed vaults of St Mark's are coated with shimmering gold. Against their heavenly background, saintly figures glimmer, seeming to come and go. We are gazing, as the Byzantine artists intended, upon the vault of heaven. It is dimly lit - many would think too dimly - but this is part of the mystery. It occurred to me that ancient Venetians would never have had the benefit of today's high powered lights, and that even in the height of summer, the recesses of the basilica would have been shrouded in shadow. This is surely as intended. Byzantine churches do not bludgeon us, as in the baroque west, by pushing heaven into our faces. Here, all is subtlety and suggestion, an evocative glimpse for straining eyes.

Will Westminster Cathedral ever look like this? Certainly not in our lifetimes - but the intention is there, and St Mark's is the nearest we can know to the finished effect. I am struck at how simple the designs are in St Mark's; the plans for our Westminster mosaics, such are they are, crowd the vaults and walls with complex scenes, with throngs of interacting figures. In Venice, figures tend to stand alone, starkly and powerfully against the vast golden background. Even over the apse, the solitary figure of Christ reigns tremendously amid a heaven of shimmering gold. Of course, individual figures need to be impressive figures, and the question of finding craftsmen of the calibre of the mosaicists of St Mark's is an acute one.

As in our own Cathedral, there are intimate spaces within the vastness of the basilica. It was in one of these, the chapel of St Theodore, where we celebrated Mass, my nose mere inches away from the Madonna Nicopeia, the venerated ikon stolen from Constantinople, and carried before the Venetian armies into war. As I turned to our Cathedral pilgrims, their numbers swollen by pious or curious tourists, to share the Peace, I knew I would never forget the moment. To offer Mass was to become part of the story of St Mark's, linking this ancient basilica with our newer Cathedral, and the church throughout the ages. The weight of history was heavy, the sense of unity strong, and the magnificence of the surroundings made the promise of future glory seem very real. mm

Soon after Mass, we filed past the shrine of the saint himself. St Mark is buried in simple unadorned stone, but the Venetians have not been wanting in their devotion, having stolen the costliest relic in all Constantinople, the lavish and intricate altarpiece known as the Pala d'Oro, to adorn the evangelist's shrine. As I stood aside to offer a particular prayer to my namesake, I reflected that the solidity, beauty and subtlety of this basilica pay homage to the strength, beauty and subtlety of the first of the gospels. St Mark's is a monument to the superb pride and majesty of the Most Serene Republic, but also witnesses the hold of the gospel over a Christian people, and their ambitious desire to mirror the treasures therein in the most glorious creation of human hands.


Lover of Futility said...

Excellent and evocative post Mgr. It reminds me of my first visit to Venice in January 1996 when my wife and I sought refuge in the Basilica from the bitter cold, warming our hands on the votive candles!

Andrew said...

Father, may I ask why was the Pala d'Oro considered the most intricate altarpiece?

It looks plain to me. Does it have some other significance?

Mark Langham said...

The picture only shows the rear of the Pala d'Oro, which is swivelled round for feast days. It is a panel of solid gold and enamel that expresses one of the high points of Byzantine art. There is a description, and a picture, available here'Oro

Anonymous said...

An absolutely magnificent post, thank you!

Anonymous said...

a very well written piece, romantic and wonderfully descriptive. It made me feel as though I was there too.

Anonymous said...

For another hint at how the finished Westminster Cathedral will look, you might look at the 'New' Cathderal in St Louis USA, which is in the Byzantine style and is said to have the largest collection of mosaics in the world. There website is under reconstuction, but has a nice picture as its opening page

You can also see some photos, including one evocative one that appears to be one with the electric lights turned off, at Andrew Cusack's blog.

And may I add how much I enjoy blog! Thanks