No, I’m not talking about current affairs in Washington. We’re in Venice, Italy, and the picture shows a mosaic celebrating a crime. What’s fascinating is that this depiction of a shameful event is proudly displayed in a most unlikely place—on the front of a church. And not just any church. Venice chose to brag about its misdeed on the facade of its greatest church, the Basilica of St. Mark.
The mosaic is called The Removal of St. Mark’s Body from Alexandria. Let’s replace the word removal with theft. Venice has never been a particularly religious place. The City’s unofficial motto for centuries was: We’re Venetians first and Christians second. Throughout most of its history, the city pursued trade and built a vast fleet to maintain a commercial empire, the quest for wealth eclipsing all other concerns. While other cities in Italy were producing saints by the handful, Venice was too concerned with worldly matters to produce a saint of its own.
Eventually, this became a municipal embarrassment with Venice unable to join other Italian city-states in the We Have a Saint and You Don’t Club. In the year 828, Venetian officials decided to crash the club. Who cared if no Venetian was saintly enough to be canonized? Venice’s leaders hired a couple of thugs to sail to Alexandria Egypt to steal the body of St Mark the Evangelist.
The mosaic above was created in the 1600s, but it replaced a similar one much older. The thugs on the left are offering to open the basket but the men in turbans (customs inspectors) are recoiling in disgust and refusing to inspect a basket about to be shipped out of Egypt. Why? The basket has been labeled with a word known to turn the stomachs of Muslims—PORK. Inside the basket is the body of St. Mark, being smuggled out of Egypt.
Rather than feeling shame over this despicable act, the Venetians have celebrated the theft for nearly twelve hundred years. In order to justify the larceny, a legend was created that when the Evangelist’s body arrived in Venice an angel appeared and said: “Peace to you, Mark my Evangelist,” showing in this way that God had determined Venice as the final resting place of the Saint. How convenient.
Over the centuries, Venice created many great artists, architects and musicians, but to my knowledge the city on the lagoon never produced a native born saint. Perhaps Venice shouldn’t have been so arrogant as to broadcast their crime. Maybe God was unhappy with Venice for not producing a saintly citizen of its own. It’s interesting to note that remarkably few Venetians became popes, the most recent lasting only thirty-three days.
By the way, the ancient bronze horses in this photo are replicas of originals now preserved in a Venetian museum. The originals, like the body of Saint Mark, were also stolen, this time from Constantinople.