Saint Mark and Venice

Stealing the Body of Saint Mark

    
  
The legend continues. In the year 828  (not 466 as the Golden Legend would have it) two Venetian merchants
called Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello bribed priests in Alexandria to give up the remains of St Mark, which they smuggled back to Venice in barrels containing pork to put off any inquisitive Muslims. Here is the Golden Legend version: 

   And it happened in the year of grace four hundred and sixty-six in the time of Leo the emperor, that the Venetians translated the body of St. Mark from Alexandria to Venice in this manner. There were two merchants of Venice who  did so much, by prayer and by their gifts, for two priests that kept the body of St. Mark, that they allowed it to be borne secretly to their ship. And as they took it out of the tomb, there was so sweet an odour throughout all the city of Alexandria that all the people marvelled, though they did not know where it came from. Then the merchants brought it to the ship, and after setting sail, let other sailors know they were carrying the body of St Mark. There was one man in another ship that joked, and said: Are you sure you have  St. Mark?  Maybe they gave you the body of an Egyptian! Then the ship where the holy body was, turned  after him, and rudely boarded the ship of him that had said that word, and broke one of the sides of the ship, and would never leave it in peace till they had agreed that the body of St. Mark was in the ship.

   Thus as they sailed fast before the wind, the air became dark and stormy, and they did not know where they were. Then St. Mark appeared to a monk who was keeping watch on the body. He told him to lower their sails, for they were near land, and he did so, and soon they landed at an island. And  all the natives they passed told them that they were happy that they carried so noble a treasure as the body of St. Mark, and prayed that they would let them worship it. However, there was a sailor who did not believe that it was the body of St. Mark. But the devil entered into him, and tormented him so much so long that he could find on relief until he was brought to the holy body. As soon as he accepted that it was the body of S. Mark, the wicked spirit departed, and from then he had great devotion to St. Mark.  

 
Tintoretto's wonderful painting illustrates another legend.  Following the martyrdom, the pagans were going to burn the body of St Mark on the bonfire we see behind him, but a thunderstorm intervened, allowing the Venetians to make off with the body. Of course, this telescoping of history makes no sense. And it's not just history that is taken liberties with. Tintoretto's Alexandria bears an uncanny resemblance to the Piazza San Marco as it was in his day, with the saint being carted off in the direction of the basilica. Only the camel suggests a more exotic location. 
  An alternative view might be that the men in the picture are not the Venetians, but early Alexandrian Christians taking the body off for secret burial. 


Tintoretto: The Stealing of the Body of St Mark
Accademia, Venice


The ship with St. Mark's body being searched by Muslims.
Mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice


Paolo Veneziano: St Mark calming the storm on the way to Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Why?
    As I have said elsewhere, politics and religion were tightly interwoven in Venice. Before St Mark arrived, the patron saint had been St. Theodore of Amasea, definitely a B-list saint, and envious eyes were cast in the direction of Rome which could boast St Peter and St Paul. Even their maritime rival Amalfi had  the relics of St. Andrew. To have the relics of an important evangelist such as St. Mark hugely raised the status of the city. It would seem, though, that Buono and Rustico rather carelessly left St. Mark's head behind; The Coptic church claims to have that in Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria.

What happened next
  And so St. Mark's basilica was built to house the remains. Unfortunately, two hundred years later, the unthinkable happened: The authorities forgot where they had put them. Various excuses have emerged, all rather contradictory; there had been a fire, there was building work at the basilica, the people who knew the location died suddenly without passing on the secret. All of Venice despaired, but St Mark himself came to the rescue; his arm suddenly appeared from a pillar, no doubt accompanied by a shout of  'I'm over here!'
  The remains were reinterred in the crypt in 1094, but the regular flooding meant that this was no place for something so precious, and in  1811 they were moved to their present location in a sarcophagus under the high altar. According to accounts of the time, his head was included. 



Paolo Veneziano: The discovery of the relics of St Mark
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

An aside: fragrant corpses
   The Golden Legend's strange tale of the sweet odour of the exhumed body is a myth that has been attached to many famous corpses. The same story has been told of the remains of St Theresa of Avila, even of Mohammed. Nearer to home, a similar sweet smell came from the head of James IV of Scotland, finally laid to rest at the rather unromantic sounding location of St Michael, Wood Street, London:

   Workmen, for their foolish pleasure, hewed off his head; and Launcelot Young, Master Glazier to her Majesty, feeling a sweet savour to come from thence, and seeing the same dried from all moisture, and yet the form remaining, with the hair of the head and beard red, brought it to London to his house in Wood Street, where for a time he kept it for the sweetness.
John Stow, Survey of London, 1598.

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