Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Ascension Dome from the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica)
Over the course of the ninth through the eleventh centuries, three major building campaigns focused on the church of San Marco in Venice.
Construction of the first incarnation began in 829 with the intention that the church would serve as a shrine for the body of St. Mark, believed to have been brought to Venice from Alexandria that year. When this structure was destroyed in a fire in 976, a second church was raised in its place. In the years that followed, however, Venice’s rapidly increasing wealth and status demanded an even grander edifice. Between 1043 and 1071, a third and final rebuilding of San Marco took place under the doge Domenico I Contarini. Upon its completion, the interior of San Marco was unadorned brick and stucco, but by the late twelfth century, every surface had been covered with precious materials—marble, gold, gems, and mosaic glass—creating a space of otherworldly beauty worthy of Venice’s position in the world and apparent favor in the eyes of God.
Following the plan of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the layout of San Marco is based on a Greek cross with four arms of equal length. Five domes cap the space—one over each arm and one over the center where the two arms cross. This image shows the central dome. The scene depicted is the ascension of Christ into heaven following his resurrection. At the apex of the dome, Christ appears adorned in gold, encircled by a starry sphere. The Virgin, flanked by two angels, stands directly beneath him in a circular band that also includes representations of the twelve apostles. Below this ring is another comprised of smaller, allegorical figures representing the virtues and beatitudes (declarations of blessedness made by Christ). Although the iconography of the dome is in part dependent on Western sources, the dominant influence is clearly Byzantine, testifying to Venice’s long and profitable relationship with the Eastern Empire.
Despite the richness of its interior, the Basilica of San Marco did not become the cathedral of Venice until the 1800s. Before this, it was the doge’s personal church and, as such, the site of political as well as religious ritual. It has been suggested that this interconnectedness of Church and State is reflected in the choice of subject matter for the central dome. One of the most important feast days in republican Venice, Ascension Day (La Sensa) mixed piety with civic pride. Among the highlights of the La Sensa festival was a ceremonial marriage of Venice to the sea presided over by the doge with the blessings of the Bishop.
Demus, Otto. The Mosaic Decoration of San Marco, Venice. Edited by Herbert L. Kessler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Howard, Deborah. The Architectural History of Venice, rev. and enlarged ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Humfrey, Peter. The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Jolly, Penny Howell. Made in God’s Image?: Eve and Adam in the Genesis Mosaics at San Marco, Venice. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Vio, Ettore, ed. St. Mark’s: The Art and Architecture of Church and State in Venice. New York: Riverside, 2003.